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The Unique Way Richmond Elects Its Mayor

a photo of the richmond city hall building
FILE PHOTO: Richmond City Hall (Crixell Matthews/VPM)

Richmond has the distinction of choosing a mayor through an electoral system that is both unique and confusing.

Many voters are used to a “first-past-the-post” system, where the candidates with the most votes wins. That’s only partially true in Richmond, which uses a modified “runoff” system. According to the city’s charter (think constitution), “the person receiving the most votes in each of at least five of the nine city council districts shall be elected mayor.” So in Richmond, the person who receives the most votes city-wide doesn’t necessarily win. A candidate must get the most votes in five of the city’s nine districts. Essentially, Richmond’s mayoral race is like nine mini-elections. 

Since Richmond voters approved the elected mayor system in a 2003 referendum, one candidate has always managed to win five districts in the general election. But if one candidate fails to secure five districts, things get even more complicated.

If there is no clear winner on election day, a runoff election will be held between the two candidates who secured the most votes city-wide. So while city-wide vote totals don’t matter if a candidate wins five or more districts, but it does matter if a runoff election is necessary. 

In the runoff election, what’s needed to win would be the same as the general election: The largest number of votes in five of nine districts. The idea is that with only two candidates, it will be virtually impossible for someone not to win a majority of the districts. According to the city charter, the runoff election must be held on the sixth Tuesday after the general election. 

Why is Richmond’s system for electing a mayor so confusing? Unsurprisingly, that answer is also complex.

The reason for Richmond’s ‘five districts’ rule goes back to the 1970’s, when city leaders cooked up a plan to annex 23 square miles of Chesterfield and bring in 47,000 mostly white voters. For most of the 20th century, Richmond’s politics was dominated by its white residents despite a majority Black population. As professors John Moeser and Rutledge Dennis found in their seminal 1982 book, “The Politics of Annexation,” the annexation was a desperate attempt by Richmond’s white oligarchy to keep control of city hall. 

Ultimately, the annexation was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, which allowed Richmond to annex the land on the condition that it set up a district or ward system. Because Black residents had a majority in 5 of the districts, their representation on City Council as the demographic majority was secure. Councilman Henry Marsh became Richmond’s first black mayor in 1977 following the Supreme Court decision. 

Both L. Douglas Wilder, the nation’s first elected Black governor, and Richmond Mayor Tom Bliley were hyper-aware of this history when they chaired the 2002 Wilder-Bliley Commission. 

According to a 2017 piece by Venugopal Katta, that electoral reform commission was put together because of a series of corruption scandals in the 1980s and ‘90s.

“With multiple city council members indicted or convicted on a slew of charges in the late 1990s and early 2000s (including tax fraud, bribery, mail fraud, and influence peddling) and the lack of an independent Mayor outside of the council with strong executive functions, momentum began building for a Mayor directly elected by Richmond voters,” Katta wrote.

The Wilder-Bliley Commission saw the at-large mayoral election with the ‘five districts’ rule as a compromise between demands for a check on city council, as well as concerns about minority representation. 

Rich Meagher, an associate professor at Randolph-Macon College focused on state and local politics, said the ‘five districts’ rule continues to prevent mayoral candidates from winning a city-wide seat with just the support of Richmond’s wealthy and majority-white districts.

“In order to win you need to win five of nine districts, and that would probably mean that at least one or two majority Black districts would have to go your way,” he said. “Especially with the way Richmond was so polarized racially in the ‘70s, there’s no way [to win] unless you had a candidate with broad appeal, who reached out to Black voters.”