By: Venugopal Katta
On November 8th, 2016, voters in Richmond, Virginia – like hundreds of millions of Americans – headed to the polls. In addition to deciding between Presidential and Congressional candidates, Richmond voters elected former Secretary of the Commonwealth Levar Stoney to replace term-limited incumbent Dwight Jones. The process by which they did so, however, was a unique reflection of rules set up in the shadow of the city’s troubled history of racism, corruption, and legal jeopardy.
Ultimately, candidates vying to be Richmond’s Mayor need to win a plurality of the vote in at least five of the city’s nine city council districts. Should no candidate have achieved that feat on November 8th – something considered a distinct possibility considering the numerous serious candidates left in the race by that point – a second round vote between the top two city-wide vote earners was to take place (with the same requirement of winning a majority of the city’s districts). Such a system clearly poses the threat of electing a Mayor without a win in the popular vote, a particular concern given that Richmond’s Mayor is an example of a “strong-Mayor” system where the Office retains significant power independent of the city council.
While this concept of requiring an electoral majority and allowing for a run-off is by no means uncommon in America’s mayoral elections, the specific provision of winning a majority of voting districts sets Richmond apart from much of the rest of the country. The origin of this unique method traces to two periods: the “Great Unpleasantness” of the 1960s and 1970s and the Wilder-Bliley Commission of 2002.
Despite having a majority Black population, Richmond’s government for much of the 20th century, a nine member at-large elected city council who selected a Mayor from their own ranks, remained stubbornly White. In 1969, amid accusations of desires to entrench the city’s White electorate, the City Council approved an annexation plan of 23 square miles of neighboring Chesterfield County. The plan, mutually agreed to by both the city and the county, reduced Richmond’s Black population from 52% to 42% and retained the City’s at-large council scheme. While the move was also justified by supporters for efficiency in delivering services as well as economic benefit, detractors argued that the plan would essentially dilute the votes of Black residents and further weaken their representation in local government.
Meanwhile, a Supreme Court decision in Perkins v. Matthews (1971) held Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act as applicable to city annexations, and thus mandated changes to city lines be approved by the Attorney General or the D.C. District Court to prevent racial disenfranchisement. Seeking compliance, Richmond filed its already completed annexation and desire to hold an at-large city council election under the new boundaries to the Attorney General for approval – which was denied. Finally, the Supreme Court in City of Richmond v. United States (1975) in a 5-3 decision approved Richmond’s plan after a compromise by the city to alter the nine member at-large city council structure to nine single-member districts, five of which contained sizable Black population majorities.
This nine single-member district structure, which continues to this day, has proven instrumental in the city’s governance and managing concerns of racial discrimination. Corruption, however, remained a prevalent concern for the city. 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.
The Wilder-Bliley Commission, chaired by former Virginia Governor L. Douglas Wilder and former Richmond Mayor Tom Bliley, set about in 2002 to craft a proposal to put to voters and the city council which would have created an “at-large” Mayor elected directly by voters. The ideal led to fierce opposition, particularly with leaders of the city’s Black community – who feared that an at-large election could once again lead to minority voters’ concerns being subordinated to those of more affluent and better organized constituencies. One state legislator put the impact of an at-large Mayor in starker terms, stating that the proposal would trigger a “race war” in the city.
Once again, the issue of “at-large”-ness which trapped the city into a quagmire in the 1970s was in full relief. To save the reform efforts, the Wilder-Bliley Commission finally settled on a “five of nine” compromise whereby any Mayor would need to win the backing of a majority of the city’s council districts. Relying on the same logic as the initial creation of the nine districts, the compromise was meant to prevent the election of a Mayor who did not have explicit support by those in districts where Black voters resided. Though pushback remained by some leaders within the Black community, once put to the voters the measure passed with 80% support and was subsequently implemented into law – leading to the election of the city’s first directly-elected Mayor in 2005.
In 2016, Mr. Stoney ultimately prevailed with a plurality 36% of the city vote and carried the minimum five of nine districts to be elected Mayor. His election continues Richmond’s unique mode of Mayoral selection which has been shaped by a distinct and controversial history.