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Coalition Hopes To Make Virginia Elections More Competitive

With the help of computers, today's politicians can tell a lot about voters in any community, and often use that knowledge to draw congressional and legislative districts where they're almost certain to be re-elected.

Fed up with that practice, several states have taken the job of drawing boundaries away from legislators — handing it to independent, non-partisan or bi-partisan commissions. One grassroots group is trying to push Virginia in that direction.

In the last round of legislative elections, only ten seats in the state of Virginia had truly competitive races. In the rest, incumbents in so-called safe districts had no real competition. The same pattern emerged in congressional races, according to Rob Richie, executive director of a non-profit called Fair Vote.

"We are able to project winners in more than 370 races out of 435 using a methodology where we don't know anything about the election cycle, except whether the incumbent is running," he explains.

The lack of electoral competition and the increasingly polarized picture in Richmond and Washington led some prominent civic and business leaders to begin meeting and planning a change, and they approached Charlottesville lawyer Leigh Middleditch.

"I told them that I would be willing to take a shot at it. I'm 84 years of age, and I may not live to take, but I would take a shot at it," he says.

Over the last year, he's overseen creation of a group called One Virginia 2021, which will raise money and campaign for a change in the state's constitution — taking the power to draw district boundaries away from professional politicians. They'll need two consecutive votes of support from the state legislature to put their plan on the ballot. Middleditch figures that will take six years and plenty of money.

"It's been opined by one of our more sophisticated steering roup people that it's going to take about $3 million to put this over," he says.

The group has raised about $15,000, developed a logo and a website. It will kick off its campaign February 18 in Richmond with former Lt. Governor Bill Bolling, a Republican, and former Delegate Shannon Valentine, a Democrat, leading the charge.

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