By: Jacob Dievendorf
As readers of this blog will well know, each state has its own particular electoral quirks. One of Virginia’s best known quirks is its off-year election of a governor. As a previous posting on this blog points out, Virginians have been electing their governor in off years for as long as they have been electing governors directly, since 1852.
Prior to the Civil War, the governor was elected in the year before the presidential election. The destruction and disorder that the Civil War brought to Virginia, as well as the chaos of reconstruction, brought a subtle but important change. Virginia’s post-war constitution was supposed to be ratified in the summer of 1868, in time to coincide with the presidential election cycle that brought in the Grant administration. According to Brent Tarter, a historian who has written about the history of Virginia politics, speaking to WAMU, the ratification of the new constitution was put off “for a variety of reasons” until 1869, thereby establishing the pattern of electing governors a year after the presidential race.
This odd year occurrence, along with the prohibition on a sitting governor running for re-election, which limits the effect of incumbency, leads many to view the governor’s race as something of a referendum on the new presidential administration. President Trump is largely unpopular in the commonwealth, and some polling suggests that this is having at least some impact on the race for governor. Writing on the cusp of the election, all that I can point to is the polling above, and the (less than strict) trend in modern Virginia elections to elect a governor of a different party than the president, to provide any indication of the implication of off-year elections in this area. You, reading this after the 2017 race for governor of Virginia is settled, are in a much better position to judge whether the vote was a referendum or not.
Others are paying attention not so much to the results of the election, as to the way in which it is carried out. Virginia’s odd election pattern makes its 2017 governor’s race one of the few major elections to be held in the direct wake of the 2016 presidential election, and so it is seen by some as a testing ground for measures to improve the security of the elections system. Concerns over the security of electronic voting systems are at an all-time high. Amid concerns over Russian influence in the presidential election, and recent demonstrations of voting machine hacking, many election observers are keeping close tabs on Virginia’s election security as a bellwether of progress in election security.
Only time will tell if Virginia’s constitutional quirks born of the chaos and contention of reconstruction will continue to draw attention, comparison, and prediction. It has certainly captured attention in the past, and the most recent off-year election cycle is no exception. One thing is for sure, with the commonwealth’s love of tradition, and the unique attention that off-year elections garner for Virginia politics, and so its politicians, the off-year election cycle in Virginia isn’t going anywhere any time soon.