When voters go to the polls in November, they will encounter a ballot asking them to choose candidates for five local offices: school board, district supervisor, board chairman, delegate and state Senator.
Because of the local nature of the races, any voter who cares to will have a chance to meet with the candidates one-on-one and grill them on the issues. The candidates, for their part, will have had occasion to introduce themselves to their potential constituents and learned from them what their priorities should be.
But turning people out on Nov. 4 will not be easy. If the past is any indication, turnout in Fairfax County this year will be well below 50 percent. In 1999, the last time a similar election was held, 35.1 percent of registered voters cast a ballot. About 43 percent did so in 1995.
As Del. Vivian Watts (D-39) puts it, this is an "off off off year" for Virginia politics, a year when there are no congressional seats, no governor and no president at the top of the ballot.
According to Michael McDonald, a former George Mason University professor of public and international affairs, Virginia's political parties engineered the odd-year election calendar with the aim of keeping people away from the polls.
"This was intended to depress voter turnout," he said. "It was purposefully done to strengthen the parties."
Low turnouts in local races means that the outcome is easier to predict, which makes it easier for the parties to decide which races to invest in and which races to ignore.
"In order just to increase participation in Virginia politics, which is a good thing for democracy, it would be best to move those onto the congressional election cycle," said McDonald.
BUT TURNOUT this year could hit a new low. Because so many races are uncontested, voters have very little incentive to take time out of a workday to cast a ballot for a candidate who is guaranteed victory. Twelve of 26 General Assembly races this year in Fairfax County are unopposed, up from four in 1999. On the Board of Supervisors, incumbents face no opposition in the Braddock, Lee and Springfield districts. Candidates for School Board in the Braddock, Dranesville and Providence districts also face no opponents.
This is something of an oddity, according to Jon Gould, a Public and International Affairs professor at George Mason University. Usually, he said, local offices provide more competition.
"In general we tend to see more unopposed races at the federal level," he said. "Some of it may be because it’s more difficult to raise money for federal office and thus it tends to favor incumbency. Incumbents in Congress tend to get on the news more than incumbents in state politics."
This year’s number of uncontested races can be explained by the 2001 round of redistricting in Virginia, he said.
"Redistricting is designed to create safe seats, at least in this state," he said. "It’s the Republican majority trying to create enough safe Republican seats."
When redistricting packs voters of predominantly one party or the other into a single district, the opposing party has little hope of capturing the seat. These "safe seats" tend to favor incumbents and discourage possible contenders.
This worries Gould.
"It’s not democracy," he said. "It’s a sign that entrenched incumbents have tried to protect their backsides. When there are no real choices for voters, democracy suffers."
THERE MAY, however, be more to the uncontested races than redistricting. In some cases, one party may choose not to field a candidate for a particular race in order to improve the chances of one of its other candidates running for a different seat in the same precincts. For instance, unopposed incumbent Del. Jim Scott (D-53) said the Republicans may have given him a free ride to help Jim Hyland in his contest against Democrat Linda Smyth for the open Providence District supervisor seat.
Scott explained the Republican strategy this way: "What you do is to put a good bit of money into that race and you keep the likely friends of Linda [Smyth] away from the polls."
At the same time, the Democrat-endorsed school board candidate for Providence, Phil Niedzielski-Eichner, is also unopposed.
Fielding a Republican challenger against Niedzeilski-Eichner and against Scott could have encouraged Democratic voters and school advocates to come out, which would be a boon to Smyth’s campaign. But giving well-organized Democratic school advocates little reason to turn out helps Hyland.
The strategy is not reserved for Republicans, however, Scott said. By handing Del. Dave Albo (R-42) an uncontested race, the Democrats are improving Sen. Linda "Toddy" Puller’s chances against Republican challenger Christian Braunlich in the 36th state Senate district which overlaps with Albo’s.
"I THINK IT’S a fairly widespread tactic," said Scott, although he noted, "The Republicans have probably used that better than we have."
Del. Gary Reese (R-67) is another unopposed candidate. In his Republican-leaning district, he said, "If I’m ever taken out it will be in a primary."
Two Democrats are locked in tough races in districts that overlap with his: Kathy Smith is fighting to keep her Sully District seat on the School Board and Jim Mitchell is struggling to defeat first-term Sen. Ken Cuccinelli (R-37).
Reese said strategy may help to explain his cruising to reelection.
"I understand that there’s a major race out there," he said referring to the Mitchell-Cuccinelli battle.
"The one thing that Mr. Mitchell does not want is me bringing out more Republican votes."
Jan Reeves, Fairfax County Democratic Committee chairman, denied using the strategy.
"I’ve certainly worked hard in my committee trying to find people who would run in every race but it’s a big commitment," she said. "Our party has no overall strategy."
Eddie Page, chairman of the county’s Republican committee, did not return calls for comment.
Gould, the George Mason University professor, said he did not believe an overall party tactic was responsible for the unopposed races, citing instead the effects of redistricting.
"I don’t buy that," he said. "That is an incredibly cynical strategy."