An analysis of county-level governance in the Commonwealth of Virginia

How democratic are local governments in the United States?

Three famous Virginians— James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and George Mason—were leading voices in the drafting of the United States Constitution which made federalism and self-governance cornerstones of American democracy. Although their writings have inspired and shaped democratic institutions around the world, only limited attention has been paid in recent times to the nature of democratic institutions in Virginia itself. This is especially true for local governments in the state, even though local governments—as the government level closest to the people—form the foundation of American self-government and democracy.

As part of an emerging discussion on local democracy in the United States, I reviewed the system of county governance in the Commonwealth of Virginia based on a number of basic indicators of democratic governance.[1] The analysis focuses on county-level governments in Virginia because counties are politically and administratively the most important local government level below the state and form the most universal type of local government in the United States. The review produces five main findings:

Finding 1: Elected leaders of counties and independent cities are allowed choose the electoral mechanism based upon which they are themselves elected

The Commonwealth of Virginia has about 8.5 million residents and is divided into 95 counties and 38 independent cities, which holds county-level status. Due to the relatively large number of counties and independent cities, the average county-level jurisdiction has a population of 63,000 residents.

The Virginia Constitution (1971) gives each county the right to adopt its own charter, but only 3 counties have opted to do so. However, state law permits the governing body of each county, city or town to determine—by local ordinance—the electoral mechanism that is used for the election of its members.[2] As a result, there is no uniformity in the electoral structure of counties and independent cities in Virginia.

Finding 2: County governments generally lack separation-of-powers and checks-and-balances

Counties in Virginia are governed by a County Board of Supervisors, while independent cities are governed by a City Council.  Unlike at the federal and state level—where voters directly elect their legislature as well as the executive officer—residents of Virginia are not given the opportunity to elect their County Executives.[3] As a result, the County Board of Supervisors functions simultaneously as the highest decision-making body in the county as well as the executive power, thus abandoning the constitutional principles of separation-of-powers and checks-and-balances.[4]

Finding 3: County Boards are small, thus limiting local representation and debate

In all but a few counties, Virginia voters get to elect at least five county-level officials every four years.[5] While this seems very democratic, in practice the majority of these elections are for administrative positions (including the sheriff, Commonwealth attorney, Treasurer, and Revenue Commissioner) rather than for representatives on the County Board of Supervisors, which is the ultimate decision-making body of the county. For instance, the County Board decides on county taxes, prepares and approves the county budget, and appoints the County Manager, Administrator or Executive who runs the county government apparatus.

The typical County Board of Supervisors in Virginia has only five members, while the average county-level board in the state has 5.4 members. The small size of the County Board prevents the board from meaningfully representing the diversity of opinions and interests of the county’s constituents. Furthermore, the small size of the board means that county decisions don’t require extensive debate as they can be made by a board majority of three individuals.

As a result of the relatively small size of counties in the state, however, the average citizen has a reasonable level of “voice”, as—on average—each County Supervisor represents the interests of around 11,600 residents. By comparison, a County Commissioner in the State of Maryland on average represents 42,000 local residents. Nationwide, elected county board members in the United States on average represent 18,700 constituents per elected official.

Finding 4: Counties and cities are allowed to use unrepresentative electoral systems

A basic principle of representative democracy is that elections should result in the selection of representatives that reflect the preferences of the local community. For instance, if 60 percent of local voters prefer the positions of the Red Party and 40 percent of the voters prefer the positions of the Blue Party, then we would expect 3 out of the 5 elected county board members to belong to the Red Party, while 2 out of the 5 elected members ought to belong to be Blue Party.

Most Americans—regardless of political leaning—would consider an electoral system to be patently unfair and undemocratic if the above voter preferences resulted in the election of 5 county board members all belonging to the Red Party, with no representation whatsoever for the minority party. While this scenario sounds far-fetched, an “at large” approach to electing County Supervisors would achieve exactly this result: 51% of the county’s voters determine 100% of the County’s Board. As such, the at-large election of county supervisors would amplify local political divisions and artificially creates “red counties” and “blue counties” where voters who are not in the majority have no political representation.

Given the unrepresentative and undemocratic nature of at-large elections, it is perhaps surprising that Virginia state election law permits the governing body of each county, city or town to determine the basis on which its members are elected, including at-large elections. Fortunately, only a handful of Virginia counties (so far) have opted to use at-large elections as the basis for the election of the entire County Board.

Finding 5: Only one out of six elected county-level board members is a woman

Beyond the potentially unrepresentative structure of county-level elections in Virginia, election results in Virginia suggest that voter representation may in fact be worse at the local level than at the state or federal level. Although it is hard to measure how representative the views of an elected body are of the underlying population, gender and race are often looked at as indicators of representativeness. For instance, we know that while roughly 50 percent of residents in Virginia are women, only 27 percent of state legislators are women.[6] A review of county election data in Virginia suggests that county-level election result in worse representation for women, with fewer than 18 percent of County Supervisors (or City Council members) in Virginia being women. This raises the concern that unrepresentative county election structures may indeed result in weaker representation at the county level than at the state or federal level, even though the county level is much closer to the people than the state level.

The main take-away from this brief review is that there is reason for serious concern, not only for the limited democratic nature of county governments in the Commonwealth of Virginia, but in fact—to the extent that the uncovered practices are common across the United States—for the nature and extent of local democracy in the country as a whole.

However, there is also reason for hope. Whereas constitutional provisions and entrenched political interests form a formidable obstacle to improving democratic representation at the federal and state levels, there are fewer obstacles to reform at the local level. As such, targeted collective action from grassroots organizations at the state and local level in Virginia should be able to readily achieve an improvement in the representative nature of local democratic institutions in the state.


[1] The current analysis builds on a recent analysis of democratic local governance in the State of Maryland.

[2] County elections must be on one of the following bases: (i) at large from the county, city, or town; (ii) from single-member or multi-member districts or wards, or any combination thereof; or (iii) from any combination of at-large, single-member, and multi-member districts or wards.

[3] In independent cities, the mayor may be elected by the voters or by city council. However, the mayor does not have any responsibility for administering the affairs of the city; instead, the principal responsibility of mayors in Virginia is to preside over council meetings and represent the city in various ways.

[4] In Prince William, Albemarle, and Fairfax Counties, the Board of Supervisors appoints a County Executive. Other counties appoint a County Manager or County Administrator.

[5] Since 1999, the clerk of the circuit court in Virginia is elected for a period of eight years.

[6] At the federal level, 106 women currently hold seats in the United States Congress (19.8%).