Only 5% of Voters Will Decide Who Represents VA's 5th District

US Capitol
Author: Dan Sally
Created: 26 June, 2024
6 min read

Editor's Note: This article originally published on Dan Sally's website and has been republished on IVN with permission from the author. Photo by Andy Feliciotti on Unsplash


Last week, Virginia’s GOP held primaries for the upcoming House elections in November. As of today, the results for the state’s 5th congressional district are still too close to call.

The incumbent, Freedom Caucus chair Bob Good, has done what any stalwart conservative would do and begun casting doubts on the integrity of the election.

This primary was bound to be contentious but wasn’t expected to be this close. Good had found himself in the crosshairs of both Donald Trump and Kevin McCarthy - the former for his endorsement of Ron De Santis in the Republican Presidential Primary, and the latter for his vote to oust him as speaker. So the fact he only trails his opponent, John McGuire, by a little under 300 votes is a miracle in itself.

While the press is eager to portray this as a test of Trump’s strength over the party, what’s missing in the headlines is how few people turned out for this primary in the first place. As it stands, Good and McGuire are tied at around 30,000 votes each - about 5% of all registered voters in the district.

The Cook Political Report currently gives Republicans a 7% advantage in the district, so that 5% of voters will effectively decide who wins the general election in November.

Keeping this in mind, we don’t need to invent allegations of irregularities in the ballot count or hacked voting machines to cast doubt on whether or not this election served the purpose of sending the person who best represents voters of Virginia’s 5th. Out of the 55ish percent of voters expected to cast ballots for the Republican candidate in November’s general election, a small minority will have been responsible for selecting their candidate.

The remaining 45ish percent who’ll cast ballots for someone else won’t have their views represented at all.

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This isn’t the worst example in the history of the 5th district, either. Good won his seat in Congress in 2020, when then-incumbent Republican Denver Riggleman earned the ire of his party after officiating the same-sex wedding of two campaign volunteers and co-sponsoring a resolution renouncing the basket of conspiracy theories espoused by the QAnon Movement.

While Virginia’s GOP held a standard primary in every other district that year, they opted to determine the candidate for Riggleman’s district via party convention, an election where only party delegates can vote. Where primaries tend to be low-turnout elections that attract more partisan voters who prefer more polarizing candidates, they are to a party convention what the coca leaf is to cocaine.

Good ultimately won the nomination with 1,517 votes - about one-third or one percent of voters who’d participate in the general election that year.

Party Primaries: Gerrymandering a Gerrymander

This isn’t something unique to Republicans, nor is it infrequent. The four founding members of “The Squad”, the House’s left-wing caucus, all owe their elections to primary wins representing less than 30% of registered voters in their districts. Two members, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, didn’t even crack the 50% mark in their own party primary.

Over the last 30 years, the number of safe seats in the House - those being districts where the majority party has an advantage of 5% or greater - has risen, now totaling over 80% of all House seats. This means that for all but a small portion of House members, elections like Good’s are the norm, assuming the incumbent has any primary challenger at all.

In their paper The Rise of Safe Seats and Party Indiscipline in the U.S. Congress (Yale University, 2021), authors Alexander Kustov, Maikol Cerda, Akhil Rajan, Frances Rosenbluth, and Ian Shapiro show the increase in safe seats in recent decades has been accompanied by an increase in ideological extremism in Congress. 

This has led to an environment where House members are not only unable to reach agreement with those across the aisle, but often can’t get along with members of their own party. This makes it difficult to pass legislation even in a unified government.

The impact goes far beyond the standard hot-button issues that often make the headlines. In the aforementioned paper, the authors write, “Despite relatively steady economic growth and rising revenues, the U.S. government has been unable to adequately address aging infrastructure, modernize healthcare and immigration systems, or respond to new challenges like climate change. This dysfunction is linked to declining party discipline driven by the proliferation of safe seats.”

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Letting the Other 95% Speak, Too.

Regardless of whether you believe the government should govern more or govern less, all but a small percentage understand the need for it to govern. To plan for the future and address crises at home and abroad, we need a House that will respond in the interests of the voters they serve - not just a partisan slice that prefers ideologically driven obstructionism over practical compromise.

With the Supreme Court all but washing their hands of the issue of partisan gerrymandering, the easiest and most powerful lever to pull is to change our system of elections.

Your author would humbly submit that Alaska’s top-four system is the best, most practical option, as it changes our elections in two ways.

First, it replaces partisan primaries with an open primary where candidates from all parties compete for all voters, the top four vote-getters progressing to the general election. This makes it far more difficult for more ideologically extreme party activists to determine their party’s nominee.

Second, it replaces the first-past-the-post system of elections used in most districts with ranked-choice voting, which allows voters to rank their candidates in order of preference. This means Democrats in Good’s district or Republicans in AOC’s can mark their party’s candidate as their first choice, and still throw their support behind their favorite Democrat or Republican should their first choice not win.

This incentivizes candidates to campaign for those outside of their party, making them more sensitive to what the majority of voters in their district want and, because there are more than two candidates on the ballot, candidates benefit from moderating their positions.

In the case of Alaska, this has resulted in a Democratic Representative more likely to caucus with Republicans on issues such as gun rights, and a Republican Senator who voted to impeach Donald Trump after the January 6th attack on the Capitol. While some would criticize both stances, it can’t be argued they’re overly focused on their party’s base.

So, we can have a legislature that actually legislates or one where a small number of hyperpartisan wingnuts continue to nominate candidates who believe the opposition party is made up of a cabal of satanic pedos who rule the world from the basement of a pizza parlor.

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Your choice.

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