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Stakes Are High In Virginia Elections, But Turnout Expected To Be Low

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The stakes are high in tomorrow's election, when ​every seat in the General Assembly will be on the ballot. But turnout is expected to be low. The Wason Center at Christopher Newport University predicts turnout to be about 26 percent of registered voters. That would continue a long trend of dwindling turnout that stretches 30 years.

How turnout got so low

"If turnout is what we project, that will be a several-decades low," says Quentin, Kidd, director of the Wason Center. "Less than a third of seats in each chamber are actually competitive."

The high-water mark for voter participation in recent years was 1987, which was an off-off year election that did not include balloting for governor or U.S. Senate. But that year did feature a statewide ballot initiative, a controversial measure that led to the creation of the Virginia Lottery.

"That referendum generated a lot of interest across the state, and it didn't matter if you were in a district that had no competitive race or not you still could vote on the lottery," said Kidd. "That 59 percent turnout in 1987 is the highest off-off year turnout we've had in several decades."

Turnout remained relatively high in the late 1990s, when Democrats still had control over the House of Delegates. Because Republicans were trying to take control, they waged competitive races across the state. Since they took control after the election of 1999, though, the number of those contested races has dropped significantly.This year, only 38 out of 100 House races have two or more candidates.

"If you are going to have a lot of competitive races, it's going to be in the chamber that's bigger," says Kidd. "But ​Once the Republicans entrenched their control of the House of Delegates, the number of competitive seats dropped. And then, of course, redistricting made that even worse."

Impact on state politics could be big

The state Senate is where most of the action has been in recent years, although it's not much more competitive. Back in 2011, the last "off-off year" election, only 26 out of 40 state Senate races had a Republican and a Democrat on the ballot. Of those, only seven had races that were within 10 percentage points of winning, which means that the vast majority of them were contested without really being competitive. This year only 20 races have a Republican and a Democrat, only only five or so will be within 10 percentage points.

"Things are less competitive now than they used to be," says Kidd. "And I think gerrymandering is a large part of it, and the competitiveness of any given year is going to be driven by primaries right now more than it's going to be driven by general elections right now."

The lower turnout means campaigns and candidates have to target different voters.

"If 30 or a little below of 30 percent of the voters show up for this but 70 or more show up for the presidential election, it's just a completely different world of voters," Geoff Skelley at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. "The Republican coalition is very reliant on older and whiter voters. At the end of the day those groups are more likely to show up and vote, particularly older people in general."

Despite the low interest, the stakes are high. Democrats need just one seat in the state Senate to take control, which means both parties will be focusing their attention and money at two open seats.

One is the vacancy created by longtime state Sen. Chuck Colgan (D-29) of Manassas. That race features Republican Hal Parrish and Democrat Jeremy McPike. The other vacancy was created by the retirement of longtime state Sen. John Watkins (R-10) of Midlothian. That race features Republican Glen Sturtevant and Democrat Dan Gecker.

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