- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 9, 2003

RICHMOND (AP) — About 30 percent of the state’s registered voters, or about 1.2 million people, went to the polls on Tuesday, according to preliminary estimates. That means 3 million did not, said Larry J. Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia and an expert on the state’s voting patterns.

“If the turnout was not the lowest, it was pretty darn close for the modern era,” he told the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

There were not many elections in Virginia’s cities, but the main reason for the low turnout was the lack of competition in General Assembly races, Mr. Sabato said.

In 2001, Republicans in control of redistricting drew districts that were so safe for Republicans specifically and the incumbent party in general that few challengers chose to run this year.

Only 39 of the 100 House of Delegates seats were contested. And only 21 of the 40 state Senate seats were. Mr. Sabato said people have to have a reason to vote, and the majority of General Assembly candidates were unopposed.

“Rationally, in a lot of areas, why would people show up?” he asked.

Post-election statistics indicate that Assembly races in which the candidate was unopposed typically drew fewer than 20 percent of a district’s registered voters. Competitive races generally attracted more than 35 percent.

The highest turnout, 43 percent, was in Southwest Virginia’s 5th House District, where freshman Republican Delegate Charles W. Carrico Sr. of Grayson County scored a narrow victory over Thomas Graham, Marion Democrat.

Craig Bieber, who managed the successful re-election campaign of state Sen. R. Edward Houck, Spotsylvania Democrat, said there also was no statewide issue to galvanize the public.

In the General Assembly election of 1995, then-Gov. George Allen made himself and his tax policies an issue, and almost 1.6 million people went to the polls. In 1999, then-Gov. James S. Gilmore campaigned for a Republican majority in the House of Delegates. Almost 1.4 million people voted.

This year, Gov. Mark Warner and Democratic strategists chose not to put a statewide focus on the Assembly contests, Mr. Bieber said.

Running a statewide campaign is “a two-edged sword,” he said. “You could catch a wave, but it could also backfire against incumbents.”

The Democrats made their first net gain in 20 years. The party picked up three seats in the House, though it lost one in the Senate. No Democratic incumbent was defeated. One Republican incumbent lost.

Warner spokesman Kevin Hall said the governor was satisfied with the outcome. “Given the makeup of the districts and the difficulty in attracting competitive candidates, it was a strong start,” Mr. Hall said.

The next Assembly will have 12 new members in the House and four in the Senate. Unless a recount reverses the outcome in the 6th House District, the new House will have 61 Republicans, 37 Democrats and two independents. The new Senate will have 24 Republicans and 16 Democrats.

In the 6th District, Delegate W.B. “Benny” Keister, Radford Democrat, held a 49-vote edge over Delegate Morgan Morris Jr., Dublin Republican.

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