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.
The state's electoral rhythm was thrown off during Reconstruction, Tarter says, but since 1869 there has been a new governor every four years. In that time only one man, Mills Godwin, has been governor twice. He was elected as a Democrat in 1965 and returned as a Republican in 1973.
Every other state allows its governors to run for a second term. Some states have open-ended reelection possibilities. Virginia, on the other hand, had term limits before term limits were cool.
"Every time we have an election," says Robert D. Holsworth, a political science professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, "the candidates struggle with name recognition."
Often the candidates have held statewide jobs before. Kilgore has been the attorney general and Kaine the lieutenant governor. Kaine was also the mayor of Richmond. Many recent Virginia governors -- L. Douglas Wilder and Charles Robb, for example -- served as lieutenant governor first. Gilmore was the state's attorney general.
Even so, Holsworth says, it's rare that more than 10 percent of Virginians in a random survey can identify their lieutenant governor or attorney general. "Because of our system," Holsworth says, "our candidates have to reintroduce themselves."
Both Kaine and Kilgore support second terms for Virginia governors.
Sometimes a candidate such as Wilder, who was the first black governor in the country; Charles Robb, who was the son-in-law of President Lyndon Johnson; or George Allen, who was the son of the coach of the Washington Redskins, might have a charismatic personality. Sometimes there will be a get-out-the-vote issue, such as Gilmore's vow to kill the car tax in 1997. Holsworth says that in the weeks between now and Election Day, such an issue might emerge. He thinks it might be the candidates' differing approaches to the death penalty. Jerry Kilgore says he supports the death penalty; Tim Kaine says he is against the death penalty but will uphold the state's laws on execution.
Or it could be the abortion debate. Or a skeleton in a closet.
When the two candidates spoke at VCU, Holsworth says, they seemed to be entirely different ideologically. On the big issues such as transportation and education, "they had dramatically different points of view," Holsworth says. "But in some ways they seemed to be more similar than Russ Potts."
H. Russell Potts Jr. is a third-party candidate for governor. He is trailing far behind in the polls.
Kaine and Kilgore, Holsworth says, "came across as people running fairly conventional campaigns."
He adds, "The public is having a difficult time distinguishing between the two."
Terry Camilleri, for instance, says he hasn't gotten very excited about Kilgore or Kaine. He is shopping at a roadside farmer's market in Goresville. "We're traditional Republicans, so we'll vote Republican," says Camilleri, speaking also for his wife, Betty, both in their late sixties. "It's not so much that nobody cares. It's that there is no sharp demarcation between the two."
George Griffith, 48, is an old hippie. He looks like George Carlin and there are some Carlin thoughts-for-the-day taped to the cold-cut refrigerator at the deli in the rear of Griffith's Lovettsville Mini-Mart. "I am usually involved," he says. "I always follow politics. But this particular election I haven't been able to manage the proper level of excitement." The candidates, he says, seem pretty much the same.
Over and over you hear the same plaint from voters. Like Coke and Pepsi, Wal-Mart and Kmart, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen -- Kilgore and Kaine are so genetically, generically similar that it's tough to tell them apart. They may be the most uniform candidates since sliced bread.
Virginians might also be politicked out. Rick Sincere, chairman of the Charlottesville Electoral Board, speaks of his state's election fatigue. There is at least one election every year in Virginia, whether it's local, state or federal. In some communities there are two elections every other year. "And that's not even counting primaries," he says.
Sincere believes that one salient reason for the statewide dearth of enthusiasm in the gubernatorial contest is the "lack of competition in down-ticket races."
In other words, there are not a lot of contentious local contests. "Unless you've got someone talking about those issues that are close to home," Sincere says, "you're not going to get people to come out to the polls."
He says that over the years gerrymandering has created districts that favor incumbent officials and discourage competition. He thinks that a nonpartisan redistricting system, such as what Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is proposing in California or the one that already exists in Iowa, might partially solve the problem of off-off ennui.
Other proposed solutions include moving the governor's race to another year that might have more national interest. And allowing governors to serve for a second term.
"People think this is such an important tradition," Sincere says of the Virginia gubernatorial system, "and if it ain't broke don't fix it. Although there a lot of people who would say it is broke."
Numbers suggest that the system is at least faltering. In 1989, 67 percent of the state's registered voters turned out for the election that put Wilder in the governor's mansion. Four years later, 61 percent turned out to see Allen win. In 1997, 50 percent of registered voters cast ballots in the Gilmore-Don Beyer contest. And last time around only 46 percent turned out. That's a drop of more than 20 percentage points in 20 years.
This lacklustrousness is not a modern phenomenon. Historically, the state Democratic Party worked hard to limit the number of voters so that its candidates could be elected. In his 1949 landmark book, "Southern Politics in State and Nation," historian Vladimer Orlando Key wrote, "A smaller proportion of Virginia's potential electorate votes for governor than does that of any other state in the South."
The powerful political empire of former governor Harry Byrd, Key observed, "owes its existence both to competent management and to a restricted electorate."
The Byrd machine employed poll taxes and literacy tests to prevent certain people from voting. "It was very complicated to register to vote," says historian Tarter. "You had to fill out a registration form. There were no instructions on how to do that. If you didn't include the right information, you were rejected."
Virginia used these underhanded tactics more extensively than Mississippi and Alabama, two states that discriminated against black voters. The Byrd machine discriminated against anyone -- black or white -- who wasn't a supporter of the Byrd machine, Tarter says. Registrars said no to Republicans from the mountainous parts of Virginia and to New Dealers from the flatlands. The upshot was a very small electorate -- Democrats who believed in Byrd.
Eventually Byrd died and his machine melted and those barbaric barriers to democracy were torn down, but Virginia's system-that-discourages-enthusiasm remains. It has a life of its own. And it is sui generis.
In Woodbridge, Edward Young, 55, who runs a Christian book and gift store and is also the pastor at Laurel Grove Baptist Church in Franconia, says he has followed the campaign closely. "Neither one," he says of Kaine and Kilgore, "has defined their objectives and purposes during this campaign. Or their directions."
They are, he says, peas in a pod.