A Look Into Virginia's Candidate Selection Process

May 12, 2017

Credit MBandman / Creative Commons

Democrats and Republicans will be heading to the polls in June for a primary for statewide offices. But voters in 26 House of Delegates districts will also be selecting candidates. It’s part of a patchwork of different nominating methods, including conventions and caucuses.

Back when the Democrats ran Virginia as a one-party state in the 1800's, party leaders chose candidates in smoke-filled rooms. But then in the early 1900's, progressive reformers started pushing for a primary system that would allow ordinary voters a say in the process. Geoff Skelley at the University of Virginia says that reform came into place just as the 1902 Constitution severely restricted the ability of blacks to vote.

“The primary actually made it easier for the organization, the machine forces, to win elections because the nature of the electorate and the people who could actually vote were actually friendlier to the machine than of the electorate had been slightly broader as it had been before the Constitution.”

Quentin Kidd at Christopher Newport University says a new form of choosing candidates emerged as a reaction to the primary system.

“In the 1960's and 1970's, there was sort of a reversion back to a form of caucus in some states. That caught up to Virginia the 1980's.”

These days, most House Districts that have contests will be on the ballot for the statewide primary. But four districts will use firehouse caucuses. And voters in three districts will select candidates the old fashioned way, at conventions -- although the rooms won’t be quite as smoke filled this time.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.