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A Brief History of Virginia’s Off-Year Elections

Virginia is one of four states with legislative elections this fall.
Virginia is one of four states with legislative elections this fall. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Virginian voters never get a break. This year, the General Assembly is on the ballot; next year, the president; in 2021, the governor.

Virginia’s unusual election calendar dates back to the state’s 1851 Constitution, which gave all white male property-holders over the age of 21 the right to vote and to directly elect the governor.

The first statewide gubernatorial elections were held that December and continued in off-years ever since.

Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, said the odd election calendar wasn’t initially a tactical decision by politicians at the time. But he said it came to benefit the powerful Byrd Organization, who ran Virginia’s segregationist Democratic Party during the first half of the 20th century and beyond.

As the national Democratic Party tilted to the left in the wake of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal plan, the state’s conservative Democratic lawmakers benefited from not sharing the ticket in presidential elections.

Republican Dwight Eisenhower easily carried the state in 1952 and 1956, but Republicans didn’t have a governor until 1970 in Linwood Holton, and didn’t control a chamber of the legislature until they won the state senate in 1996.

“Imagine what would've happened in the state elections had we had state elections simultaneous with the presidential election,” Sabato said.

University of Virginia law professor Dick Howard, who helped author Virginia’s current constitution, said that Virginia politicians seemed to believe that the off-year schedule helped insulate the state from national moods.

“The conventional wisdom – oft repeated in legislative circles – is that Virginia does not want to moor its ship to the federal man-of war,” Howard wrote in an email.

Turnout numbers suggest Virginia’s annual elections wear on voters, who are increasingly likely to skip off-year elections. That’s especially true in so-called off-off year state legislative elections, like the ones held this year, that lack gubernatorial or other statewide race. Just 29% of Virginia voters cast their ballot at the last such election in 2015, compared to 72% in the presidential elections the following year.

Political analysts broadly agree that the current schedule benefits Republicans because their base votes more reliably than blocs backing Democrats.

“The people who are most motivated in the electorate tend to be older,” Sabato said. “They tend to be whiter, and they tend to be Republican.”

There has been little appetite in changing Virginia’s calendar, which would require a Constitutional amendment. A 2015 bill by Democratic Delegate Marcus Simon that would have tracked Virginia onto the federal calendar died in subcommittee. Sabato says politicians are unlikely to change anytime soon.

“There's one thing they know for sure: They were elected under the current rules,” Sabato said.