Virginia's Quadrennial Dilemma: Whosis or Whatsizname?

Republican Jerry Kilgore, left, and Democrat Tim Kaine: The winner gets one term and out.
Republican Jerry Kilgore, left, and Democrat Tim Kaine: The winner gets one term and out. (By Kevin Wolf -- Associated Press)
By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 16, 2005

Virginia tries its dangdest to keep voters from getting excited about choosing a governor.

First of all, the election is always held in an off-off year -- that is, a yawner of a year when there are no national elections. So you don't have anybody at the top of the ticket -- presidential or congressional candidates -- to make you get out of bed and put on your voting shoes. This year the election is on Nov. 8.

The bottom of the ticket doesn't look too sexy either. Of the 100 state delegate races, most of the candidates are incumbents who are running unopposed.

Virginia is the only state in America that does not allow a governor to run for a second term, so there are never any incumbents in the race. You are always being introduced to new politicians and you're never dashing down to the polling booth to keep your candidate in office or to run the other rascal out. The two gubernatorial front-runners are virtually unknown in many parts of the state.

"I think we should have the opportunity to run for a second term," says former governor Jim Gilmore. "It is profoundly dumb that we don't have the ability to do that."

Gilmore believes it is very difficult for the state's chief executive to make sweeping changes in four short years. "The one-term governership is very distorting."

As a result of the no-reelection rule the voter is usually forced to choose between strange and stranger. And if the candidates are of similar build and demeanor and countenance -- like Tim Kilgore and Jerry Kaine -- you might even get them confused. They are, after all, outwardly affable dark-haired white-skinned attorneys in their forties.

What? Oh. It's Jerry Kilgore and Tim Kaine. Whatever.

Perhaps Virginia's peculiar method of electing a governor is why voter turnout has been on the decline in recent times and enthusiasm is dampened. For more than 150 years, the state governors have been elected on off-off years. "On" years are those with presidential elections, like 2004 and 2008, and "off" years are the even-numbered years that have congressional races. "Off-off" years are years when there are no presidential or congressional elections. Most states hold their gubernatorial elections on either on years or off years. Only a handful, including Virginia, hold them on off-off years.

Gilmore disapproves of the off-off-year cycles. "We ought to have our elections on even years. It's more cost-effective and it would raise public awareness. We need a lot of reforms," he says.

"It is pure accident that the election is held on off-off years," says Brent Tarter, a historian at the Library of Virginia for more than 30 years. "It actually began with the new constitution of 1851, which took power to elect a governor away from the General Assembly and gave it to the people."

Tarter adds, "Up until then, the office of governor was very, very weak." That's why Gov. Thomas Jefferson was pretty much powerless when the British invaded in 1780 and chased the General Assembly out of Richmond. Jefferson didn't have the authority to muster the local militias, so he hightailed it as well.

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