The 2013 election season finds the nation’s attention turned to Virginia, where a highly charged and competitive race has been seen as a bellwether of sorts for the nation’s mood and the relative health of the major parties. Republican Ken Cuccinelli faces Democrat Terry McAuliffe, with Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis capitalizing on voters’ disenchantment with the major parties to actually garner poll numbers in double digits.
The season has brought many of the perennial laments: that our politics is crass, the campaigning too negative, the choice at the ballot box reduced to the lesser of two evils. So what should we make of this, historically speaking?
Virginia has garnered so much attention because it is the most prominent off-year race, but also because the state has become increasingly “purple,” in play for both parties in statewide contests, and potentially crucial for any candidate seeking the presidency. It’s been a while since Virginia was so prized.
In the 18th century, Virginia was the wealthiest and most populous state. That translated into electoral power, with four of the nation’s first five presidents hailing from the Old Dominion. It wasn’t until 1812 that two states, New York and Pennsylvania, surpassed Virginia in electoral strength.
What of today’s negative campaigning? The gentlemanly debate of yesteryear is mostly a reassuring myth. Newspapers in the early years of the republic printed outlandish attacks on many of the same people now revered as our greatest statesmen. The myth obscures the fact that elected representatives struggled to reach consensus, just as we still do.
Today, of course, we are saturated with media in a way the Founding generation couldn’t have imagined. That makes any message, positive or negative, easier to deliver — and proxies are still extremely useful for that task. Stumpers in Virginia’s gubernatorial campaign this year have included some stars in American politics, including the president this past weekend.
In the 18th century, it was considered unseemly to openly campaign for political office, so proxies delivered the message for them. Patrick Henry, not generally known for being demure, acknowledged his 1776 election as Virginia’s first post-independence governor with a letter published in the Virginia Gazette: “I lament my want of talents, I feel my mind filled with anxiety and uneasiness, to find myself so unequal to the duties of that important station to which I am called by the favour of my fellow citizens.”
But the “favor” of the governorship was bestowed on Henry by the General Assembly, not by popular vote. And there were significant restrictions on who voted for the General Assembly. Virginia’s 1776 Constitution carried over the practices from the colonial period. In general, that meant you had to be a free, white male property-holder over the age of 21.
Today we the people have a lot more say in our government than the residents of Williamsburg in the 1770s. We like the candidates to ask for our vote, not coyly act as if they are only relenting to public will. There is reason to be discouraged about our political climate. But as a self-governing people, we are ultimately responsible for it. Voting isn’t our only responsibility as citizens, but it is a pretty big one.
Election Day FAQs
Who’s voting this Election Day?
Voters in both Virginia and New Jersey will go to the polls to elect a governor on Nov. 5, 2013.
In Virginia, where current Gov. Robert F. McDonnell has reached his term limit of four years, Democratic Candidate Terry McAuliffe, GOP candidate Ken Cuccinelli and Libertarian Party candidate Robert Sarvis are on the ballot for his seat. Also included on the ballot are candidates for lieutenant governor and attorney general, and all 100 seats in the state House of Delegates.
In New Jersey, Republican governor Chris Christie is running for a second term against Democratic candidate Barbara Buono. Voters also will choose a lieutenant governor, and seats in the state Senate and House.
Several other states will hold elections for local offices.
Where do I vote?
Learn more about elections at history.org
Podcast: Elections’ bitter history
From The Colonial Williamsburg Journal: Voting in Early America