It’s like a quick fix for the electoral junkie who didn’t quite get enough the last go around. Every four years on the odd-numbered year after the presidential elections, Virginia and New Jersey hold elections for Governor (Virginia also elects its Lieutenant Governor and Attorney General as well). They are the only states to hold such elections at this time. These are called “off-off-year” elections because they occur two-cycles off the presidential election cycle (presidential election years being the “on” year elections, mid-term election years being the “off” year elections, and odd-year elections being the “off-off” year elections).
While odd election cycles might point to Machiavellian political games designed to enhance the electoral fortunes of one faction or another, the reason for Virginia’s unique place on the electoral calendar is really rather benign and has more to do with shifting populations, and arguments over proportional representation, and Virginia’s strong adherence to tradition than anything else.
After the census of 1840 was taken, it became apparent to everyone that the white population of the Western half of Virginia (the half that is now the state of West Virginia) far exceeded the white population of the rest of the state. Noting the disproportionate representation in the General Assembly favoring the Eastern half of Virginia, Westerners began calling for a constitutional convention to solve the problem, and the General Assembly soon complied. Delegates to the convention convened in Richmond in early October, 1850 and met for nearly a year.
In March 1851, while the constitutional convention was meeting, the Virginia General Assembly elected a new governor, as it had for the past 75 years for a three-year term. The newly elected governor Joseph Johnson was to take office on January 1, 1852, but in the ensuing months Virginia voters approved the new constitution which among other things expanded suffrage to all white male citizens 21 years or older who had been residents for at least two year and required the governor to be popularly elected to a four-year term. The constitution also prohibited the governor from serving successive terms, a prohibition that is still in place today.
Soon after the new constitution was adopted Democrats met in convention in Staunton and nominated Johnson to run for governor. The first popular election for governor was held on December 8, 1851, but the results of the election were not certified until January 15, 1852. Not wanting to leave the Commonwealth without a chief executive, Johnson assumed the governor’s office on January 1, 1852 by rights of his having been elected by the General Assembly the previous March. On January 15, after the results of the election were certified, he was declared the winner of the first popular election for governor in the Commonwealth’s history and assumed the office on that basis on January 16. A series of unelected military governors during Reconstruction shifted the election cycle from one-year before presidential elections on the odd year to one-year after presidential elections on the odd year, and that pattern has remained ever since.
The off-off-year cycle is probably one reason that Republicans were able to get a strong foothold in Virginia sooner than they did in many other southern states. In the early 1950s it became apparent to Democratic Senator Harry Byrd Sr., the political godfather of the Byrd organization that controlled Virginia politics for half a century that the Virginia Democrats were probably more in agreement with national Republicans on many issues than they were with national Democrats. In the presidential election of 1952, Byrd helped the Eisenhower-Nixon ticket win Virginia, but then turned around in 1953 and convinced those same voters who had cast ballots for Republicans the year before to vote for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Thomas B. Stanley. This quadrennial pattern of presidential-gubernatorial electioneering repeated itself in 1956-57 and 1960-61, skipped 1964-65 due to the extremism of Barry Goldwater, and then reverted to a new pattern 1968-69, 1972-73, and 1976-77 when many of those conservative Democrats who had been flipping decided to just stay with the Republicans both years.
For nine consecutive elections since 1977, including 2009, Virginia has gone against the national trend, electing a Republican governor every time a Democrat was in the White House or a Democratic governor every time a Republican was in the White House. While its origins can be found in the oddities of an electoral calendar started by a constitutional convention called to deal with a question of equal representation, the off-off-year election has become entangled with the presidential-gubernatorial cycle and today serves, depending upon who you talk to, as an early gauge on public approval of the president or a steady reminder of the importance Virginia places on tradition.
Quentin Kidd is Director of the Judy Ford Wason Center for Public Policy and Associate Professor of Political Science at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia.