Efforts by a local state legislator to remove Virginia’s one-and-done restriction on governors made it out of committee but died a lopsided death in the state Senate.
Senators voted 26-12 to kill the proposed constitutional amendment, patroned by Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria-Arlington), that potentially would have allowed governors elected after 2025 to succeed themselves in office.
Longstanding Virginia law has prohibited governors from consecutive terms, although it does allow former governors to return to office after an interval of at least four years away.
(To date, only one former governor has done so: Mills Godwin, who served in office as a conservative Democrat from 1966-70, returned as a Republican for a second turn from 1974-78. Currently, former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe is seeking to win back the seat he vacated three years ago, although unlike Godwin he’s not changing parties to do so.)
Virginia is the lone holdout among the 50 states in not allowing governors to succeed themselves. For much of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, various Virginia political machines (most notably the Byrd machine, prominent from the 1930s to the 1960s), used the one-and-out rule to ensure that no leader became more powerful than the machine itself, and also to give more of its party loyalists a chance at the top job.
When Virginia last created a new state constitution in 1971, the one-term limit was retained, although those occupying the commonwealth’s two other statewide offices – lieutenant governor and attorney general – are allowed to, and frequently do, succeed themselves.
“Virginia is the only state which does not allow their governor to run for consecutive terms,” Ebbin said. “I believe this hampers government accountability, continuity in planning, long term budgetary decisions, and limits the benefits of experienced and talented governors.”
Over the past three decades, there have been various runs made at amending the constitution to provide future governors with the ability to succeed themselves. The sticking point always seems to have been the balance of power between the legislative and executive branches – allowing governors power to avoid immediate lame-duck status needs to be offset by either the executive branch giving up some power or the legislative branch receiving some additional power, and that has never successfully been ironed out among legislators.
Ebbin’s bill was successfully cleared the Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections on a 10-5 vote, but was killed in the full Senate by a coalition of Democrats and Republicans. Among others in the Arlington delegation, Sen. Janet Howell voted in support of the Ebbin measure, Sen. Barbara Favola against it.
Outside of Virginia, states have a wide array of policies when it comes to gubernatorial succession:
• Some states, like Connecticut and Illinois, permit unlimited consecutive terms.
• Others states, like Louisiana and Maryland, permit two terms in a row, followed by a mandatory break, but allow governors to come back after that.
• California and Arkansas are among states that limit governors to two terms for their lifetimes.
• States like Montana and Wyoming limit governors to a maximum of eight years out of a given time period (between 12 and 16 years).
All states have four-year terms for governor except Vermont and New Hampshire, where, as a nod to their limited-government pasts, chief executives serve two-year terms.
(Salivating to know everything there is to know on the subject? See the Website at https://ballotpedia.org/States_with_gubernatorial_term_limits.)
In order to amend Virginia’s constitution, a measure must be passed by the General Assembly, then a legislative election must occur, then the next General Assembly must pass an identical measure, then the proposal goes to the public in the subsequent general election.
Ebbin had proposed the measure in 2020 but, like many constitutional amendments, it was deferred for consideration in the 2021 session.