Virginia Government and Virginia Politics

The organization chart of state government shows the structure of the three branches. The governor has authority to make numerous appointments, and the Virginia Supreme Court has the authority to rule on the constitutionality of a law. When push comes to shove, however, the General Assembly is the center of political power in Virginia... even though most residents of the state could not name their elected representatives to the House of Delegates or the State Senate.

The General Assembly is the oldest elected representative body in the United States in continuous operation. It started in 1619 as a political unit of the Virginia colony, and became the legislative body of the independent state of Virginia in 1776 (12 years before the Federal Congress was first elected in 1788, after ratification of the Constitution).

Starting in 1619 the General Assembly was composed of the colonial governor, the Council of State, and burgesses elected from towns, hundreds, or other "particular plantations." In 1643, the unicameral General Assembly organized as a bicameral organization. The appointed members of the Council of State served as the "upper" house, and the elected members served as the "lower" House of Burgesses. Laws had to be approved by the governor-general, the Council of State, and the House of Burgesses after 1643 before becoming official.1

The reconstructed Capitol in Williamsburg is an incorrect architectural representation of the building's appearance in 1776, but still worth a visit. There, you can see the last page of the House of Burgesses' journal that someone wrote the final word concluding it's operation - Finis. That was done after colonial governor Lord Dunmore sought to block the rebellious House from continuing to meet. Members just adjourned to the local pub and created a new mechanism for representative government. There were 5 extralegal Virginia Conventions in 1775-76, before Virginia declared its independence and then adopted its first constitution, formally converting from a colony to a state and establishing the General Assembly as the replacement for the House of Burgesses and the Governor's Council.

Government by "town meeting," where 100% of the voters appear at one event to make a decision, is limited to homeowner associations and other small groups in Virginia. For town, city, county, state, and national issues, we have a representative form of government. The boundaries of voting districts identify regions within Virginia that elect representatives to deal with political concerns. Only five officials are elected statewide in Virginia - two U. S. Senators, the Governor, the Lieutenant Governor, and the Attorney General. Virginia also has 11 members in the House of Representatives of the US Congress.

Today there are 140 members in the General Assembly. Virginians can vote for just one state House and just one state Senate candidate. At this time, there are no longer any multi-member districts where voters could elect more than one official to the House of Delegates, or more than one Senate Senator.

There are 40 Senate districts for electing 40 members to the State Senate, and 100 House districts for electing the 100 members to the House of Delegates. Obviously, each member of the State Senate represents more Virginians than a member of the House of Delegates. (Do the math - 6.8 million Virginians divided by 40 Senate districts vs. 6.8 million Virginians divided by 100 House districts...)

Governor's Palace in Williamsburg, home of colonial chief executive and head of colonial General Court 1699-1775
Governor's Palace in Williamsburg, home of colonial
chief executive and head of colonial General Court
(1699-1775)

"Lumping" vs. "splitting" political districts is different at some local levels, however. Many counties and cities have defined magisterial districts or wards from which individual county Board of Supervisors or the City Council members are elected. In such counties and cities, local elections are thus comparable to the elections for the General Assembly and voters can choose only one candidate.

However, other counties and cities elect some or all of their politicians "at large". When you enter the polling booth in such areas, you can vote for more than one candidate. The top vote-getters in the entire county/city are elected, regardless of the geographic split of the vote within the county/city. There are also hybrid systems. In Prince William County, for example, voters across the entire county can chose the chairman of the Board of Supervisors as well as vote for the supervisor in one magisterial district. The county is divided into seven districts, with the chair being the eighth member of the Board of County Supervisors. Candidates for the county-wide seat of Chairman seek support from all voting-age residents across the county, while candidates for each district restrict their campaigning to less than 20% of the county's population... the ones eligible to vote in their particular magisterial district.

Such a system discourages election of candidates representing minority views, or minority races and ethnic groups within a county/city. 51% of the voters can elect 100% of the officials. That's how the top 5 state officials are elected.

In Richmond, the city is divided into wards to help ensure the City Council's racial profile reflects the city's racial profile. Forty years ago, when black residents were nearing a majority of the city residents, there were only one or two blacks elected to the City Council. Many political issues in the capital city are still racially-based, but the power of black and whie residents has reversed. With a ward system, now it is the white residents in the "west end" who are ensured that their concerns will receive more than token representation.

Roanoke debated this issue, but in 1998 it rejected a proposal to divide the city into 5 wards. The proponents of a ward system suggested electing representatives from separate wards would empower residents from separate neighborhoods, including the poor section of town perceived as "under-represented" by the current system of city-wide elections.

The Federal government forced Richmond to adopt a ward system after passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Richmond was a highly-segregated city, with the black population concentrated in the neighborhoods east of the Boulevard. The number of elected officials from that area was perceived as insufficient, and the system of electing the top 9 candidates citywide was considered discriminatory. In the 1960's, City Council normally had only one or two black members. Once the ward system was established after the 1970 census, the majority of individuals elected to City Council were black - reflecting more accurately the racial profile of the city population.

Membership on the committees in the House of Delegates reflects the geographic interest in issues, as well as the political influence of different legislators and parties. In the 1998-2000 General Assembly, a map showing the districts of the members on two committees in 1999 illustrated this point:

Committee on Chesapeake and Its Tributaries:
Members and Location of Districts (1998-2000)
  • Co-Chairmen:
    • Cox, Marvin Kirkland (Kirk) (66th District) 
    • Jones, Jerrauld Corey (89th District) 
  • Members:
    • Bloxom, Robert Spurgeon (100th District) 
    • Dillard, James Hardy (41st District) 
    • Morgan, Harvey Bland (98th District) 
    • Murphy, William Tayloe (99th District) 
    • Albo, David Barr (42nd District) 
    • Behm, Irving Vincent (91st District) 
    • Blevins, Harry Burns (78th District) 
    • Brink, Robert Hendricks (48th District) 
    • Crittenden, Flora Davis (95th District) 
    • Darner, Leslie Karen (49th District) 
    • Davis, Jo Ann S. (96th District) 
    • Howell, William J. (28th District) 
    • Joannou, Johnny Savas (79th District) 
    • McDonnell, Robert Francis (84th District) 
    • Moran, Brian Joseph (46th District) 
    • Watts, Vivian Edna (39th District) 
Committee on Chesapeake and Its Tributaries
Committee on Mining and Mineral Resources 
Members and Location of Districts (1998-2000)
  • Co-Chairmen: 
    • Abbitt, Watkins Moorman, Jr. (59th District) 
    • O'Brien, James Kenneth (Jay), Jr. (40th District) 
  • Members:
    • Hall, Franklin Perkins (69th District) 
    • Ingram, Riley Edward (62nd District) 
    • Armstrong, Ward Lynn (11th District) 
    • Bennett, William Weldon (Ted) (60th District) 
    • Black, Richard Hayden (32nd District) 
    • Bryant, Larry Preston (23rd District) 
    • Byron, Kathy J. (22nd District) 
    • Clement, Whittington Whiteside (20th District) 
    • Hargrove, Frank DuVal (55th District) 
    • Kilgore, Terry Gene (1st District) 
    • Shuler, James Marshall (12th District) 
    • Stump, Jackie Thomas (3rd District) 
    • Tate, John Harvey (5th District) 
    • Ware, Robert Lee (65th District) 
Committee on Mining and Mineral Resources

Budget of Virginia

Byrd Organization

Congressional Districts and Representatives

Constitutions of Virginia

Dillon Rule

From a "Museum of Democracy" to a Two-Party System in Virginia: the End of the Byrd Machine

General Assembly

Governing the Colony of Virginia

Governors of Virginia

Historical Perspective on Who Can Vote in Virginia

Merging Local Governments

Mountain-Valley Republicans

Multi-State and State/Federal Organizations

Places Associated with Virginia Presidents

Planning Districts

Redistricting in Virginia

Town/City Boundaries and Annexation

Virginia Judiciary

Virginia Political Parties

in 1907, the State Capitol building did not have wings attached yet
in 1907, the State Capitol building did not have wings attached yet
Source: "Rarely Seen Richmond," Virginia Commonwealth University James Branch Cabell Library Special Collections and Archives, Capitol, Richmond, Virginia

Links

References

1. "Burgesses YES House NO" posting by Jon Kukla, Warren Billings, and Paul Finkelman on VA-HIST listserver, April 1, 2005 Library of Virginia, listlva.lib.va.us/cgi-bin/wa.exe?A2=ind0504&L=va-hist&T=0&F=&S=&P=570 (last checked May 10, 2006)
Virginia Cities and Towns
Virginia Counties
Virginia Places