Virginia is one of only five states that hold large general elections in years when there is no presidential or congressional election. Our strange election schedule originates from the 1851 state constitution, which provided white male property-owners with the right to directly vote for the governor and led to the first VA gubernatorial election that December. Since then, the state has continued to hold elections in off-years.
Although this election schedule was not a planned move by politicians at the time, it was eventually utilized by the Byrd Organization, a political machine of Virginia’s segregationist Democratic Party at the start of the 20th century. While the national Democratic Party gradually moved leftward under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the state’s conservative Democratic lawmakers held onto their seats by not sharing the ticket in presidential elections. Virginia politicians still believe holding elections in odd years helps deflect the influence of the national political climate, especially if it is changing.
Moreover, Republican President Dwight Eisenhower easily won the state in 1952 and 1956, but no Republican was elected governor until 1970 with Linwood Holton. Republicans also had no control of a chamber of the legislature until 1996. “The conventional wisdom—often repeated in legislative circles—is that Virginia does not want to moor its ship to the federal man-of-war,” stated University of Virginia law professor Dick Howard, who worked on the current state constitution. By not running local elections on the presidential or congressional midterm tickets, the state is shielded from national moods.
The side effect is decreased voter turnout. Recent numbers reveal that Virginia’s annual elections are taking a toll on voters, who are more likely to skip off-year elections. This is particularly true in “off-off year” state legislative elections that also lack gubernatorial or other statewide races. At the last such election in 2019, only 42 percent of Virginia voters cast a ballot (although this is an improvement from the 29 percent in 2015). On the other hand, 75 percent voted in the presidential elections the next year. Even though Virginia has held elections in this manner for over a century, raising voter awareness in an off-year remains challenging.
Unfortunately, low turnout tends to result in disproportionate representation of the population as older, wealthier, and more conservative voters are more likely to head to the polls in non-presidential elections. Thus, increasing voter turnout is critical for a strong democracy. Regardless of whether an election is off-year or on-year, it is paramount that voters be aware of local elections in their communities and make their voices heard at the polls. Be sure to check your state and local government websites for upcoming elections, and make a plan to vote this year!