Richmond’s mayoral election is more like nine mini-elections, making the path to victory complicated for both incumbent Mayor Levar Stoney and his four challengers. Rich Meagher breaks it down for us.
As Richmond’s mayoral race heats up, it’s worth remembering that this is more than just an election. For incumbent Levar Stoney and his four challengers – Kim Gray, Justin Griffin, Tracey McLean, and Alexsis Rodgers – it’s also a math problem.
What many people don’t realize is that there is not one single mayoral election. Thanks to the city’s arcane election rules, there are actually nine mini-elections, one in each City Council district. To become Mayor, a candidate needs to get a plurality of votes (more than anyone else, not necessarily a majority) in five of the nine districts. If this does not happen, the top two candidates citywide move to a December runoff, where one of them should be able to win the five districts they need.
What’s with the weird election setup? Well, like everything in the former capital of the Confederacy, it’s all about race.
Richmond has for a long time been a “majority-minority” city, where Blacks outnumber whites. But poverty rates and educational levels work to skew the electorate towards whites. When the current city government structure was set up two decades ago, some were concerned that a citywide election would be dominated by Richmond’s white power structure.
This was not an idle concern. Richmond actually did not hold elections for much of the 1970s because the federal Department of Justice (DOJ) shut them down. The 1970 annexation of majority-white south side districts from Chesterfield County was rightly interpreted by the DOJ as an attempt to dilute the power of Black voters and maintain white control of the city. The Supreme Court eventually allowed the annexation, but only so long as the city government was divided into districts that protected minority representation.
So when former Governor Doug Wilder and former Mayor Tom Bliley rewrote the city’s charter, they added the “5-of-9” rule to protect Black voters’ voice in determining who leads the city.
But this rule has many unintended consequences for the 2020 election. Here’s a few:
- Like the Electoral College nationally, the “5 of 9” rule eliminates the need to win the citywide popular vote. In 2016, Levar Stoney narrowly edged out Jack Berry in overall votes, winning 36 percent to Berry’s 34 percent. But it is entirely possible for a candidate to put together narrow wins in five districts, but lose big in the others, coming in second citywide to another candidate. The popular vote only really matters in determining which two candidates go to a runoff; but even in that runoff, the second place candidate citywide could still take 5 of 9 and become Mayor.
- The 5 of 9 math creates all kinds of implications for campaign strategy. Rather than trying to win the race outright, the goal for many candidates might be to win a district or two and force a runoff. For example, I would probably handicap Alexsis Rodgers as currently running in third place to Stoney and Gray. But Rodgers could focus her efforts on stealing a district or two, denying the other two a victory; and then use her progressive base to squeak into second place – and the runoff.
- A runoff election could reset the race entirely. Runoffs are notoriously low-turnout affairs, as voters exhausted by campaigns demonstrate waning interest into the winter. Dedicated core constituencies might matter much more than fundraising or incumbency. Mayor Stoney, who probably has the best shot at winning the November election outright, would surely like to avoid a runoff where his campaign’s advantages are considerably weakened.
- Multiple candidates complicate the race as well. What if local attorney Justin Griffin and Council member Kim Gray end up competing for votes in the city’s more conservative West End, denying either a shot at the runoff? Griffin and Tracey McLean are probably running considerably behind the other three candidates, but they can still play spoiler by winning a district or at least denying a district to another candidate.
- Runoffs not only add to election fatigue, but are expensive. (In 2016 the city’s registrar suggested that a runoff might cost the city $160,000.) There’s been a lot of buzz statewide about the possibility of implementing Ranked Choice Voting (RCV), which allows citizens to indicate their preferences among multiple candidates on a single ballot. In an RCV system, if no one wins a plurality, people’s second choices are used to automatically determine a winner without the need for a costly second election. Expect to hear more about RCV in Richmond, especially if we do go end up with a runoff this year.
Behind all of these permutations is, ironically, the question of legitimacy. The current system was put in place to counter a rigged history that favored white interests at the expense of minority rights. But in order to ensure a fully participatory system, we may end up with a leader who lacks a popular mandate. A mayor who does not command a majority – or, as I suggest above, might have been elected without even a plurality – could have trouble getting the city to support their policies.
Levar Stoney, who came out of a give-way race in 2016 with barely a third of the vote, certainly has been criticized; but the legitimacy concern has not dogged him as much as it might have seemed after his election. Still, his lack of a mandate might finally be catching up to him. If Stoney loses this election, it is likely because his advantages of incumbency, fundraising, and powerful friends in city and state government still could not generate enough support in the electorate. If he does lose, maybe his real problem was that he never had that many supporters to begin with.