The following topics and research questions are only suggestive of the ways in which students and teachers may find the Database Summary Statistics helpful.

Tenure and Turnover Rates in State and National Legislatures

Turnover and tenure rates are two conventional measures employed to assess the character of individual legislatures and, more generally, the development of representative government. Turnover rates record the number of new members who are elected to serve in a public office-for example, the Virginia House of Delegates. Tenure rates measure the number of years of political experience that an individual member or a legislative body collectively possesses at a particular point in time.

1. Describe and compare turnover and tenure rates in the Virginia General Assembly and the U.S. Congress. Describe and compare these rates for the Virginia House of Delegates and the Virginia Senate. How have these rates changed over time? What do these changes mean? What are their possible causes? Are differences in the term length of each legislative branch associated with different turnover and tenure rates? If so, would you expect the change from annual to biennial terms in the House of Delegates in 1851 to have any effect upon these rates? In which direction and why? What other factors might occur for variations in turnover and tenure rates?

For turnover and tenure rates in the U.S. Congress, see Norman Ornstein, Thomas Mann, and Michael Malbin, Vital Statistics on Congress, 1999-2000 (2000); Charles Bullock and Burdett Loomis, "The Changing Congressional Career," in Congress Reconsidered, 3rd ed., (1985); Nelson Polsby, "The Institutionalization of the U.S. House of Representatives," American Political Science Review (1968) 68: 144-168.

Gubernatorial Career Paths

Since 1776, fewer than 80 individuals have served as Governor of the State of Virginia. Eight individuals served only temporarily as acting-governor due to the retirement or absence of the elected Governor. William Fleming, a native of Jedburgh, Scotland and a member of the Executive Council, served as acting-Governor for only twelve days-from June 1, 1781 to June 12, 1781. From 1776 until 1851, Virginia's governors were elected by the General Assembly;; after 1851 (except for federal military rule after the Civil War), every Virginia Governor has been popularly elected.

1. Describe and analyze the legislative experience of Virginia governors before and after the 1851 constitutional change in the method of election. Was state legislative experience a prerequisite for gubernatorial election in Virginia before 1851? Why? How much state legislative experience (in House of Delegates and Virginia Senate) have Virginia governors had before their election? How did these tenure rates compare to others in the General Assembly at the time of their election?

General Assembly Tenure and Turnover Rates I

In the early 1960s, the U.S. Supreme Court established its "one person, one vote" districting principle. This principle, in brief, requires that every legislative district within a state-for example, every Virginia state Senate district--contain approximately the same number of persons as any other legislative district within the same legislative body. Every state legislature now is required to redistrict their U.S. Congressional and state legislative districts every ten years to ensure they accord with the principle of population equality. This redistricting process occurs in every state in the first two years after completion of each new Federal Decennial Census.

1. Because electoral districts are now required to be of equal population, district populations no longer could be expected to cause variation in legislative turnover or tenure rates-because each district and legislator represents approximately the same number of individuals. The question, however, remains did differences in district population sizes affect tenure and turnover rates prior to the establishment of the U.S. Supreme Court's "one person, one vote" principle. To test the plausibility of a claim that there is a relationship between district population sizes and legislative tenure rates, select several state legislative districts and record the tenure rates of their representatives between 1790 and 1960. Before 1960, most state districts were coterminous with Virginia county boundaries. You therefore can use the GEOSTAT U.S. Census Browser ( to record the population sizes of various Virginia counties (and thus of state legislative districts). Graph this historical data- placing, for example, legislative district population for every county district on the x-axis, and the tenure rate for the district's state delegate or senator on the y-axis. Do you find that the most populous state legislative districts have tenure rates different than state legislative districts with the smallest populations? Why or why not?

2. Another interesting but more difficult question is: Do the most populous districts tend to send new members less or more often to the General Assembly than less populous districts? How would you construct a similar plausibility test of the relationship between state legislative district sizes and turnover rates?

General Assembly Tenure and Turnover Rates II

Another way to think about differences in tenure and turnover rates is in terms of differences in the economic or cultural interests across state legislative districts.

1. Examine the Virginia Senate and House of Delegate (county) district maps available on Summary Statistics page. Select one or more time periods between 1776 and 2001 and map out changes in tenure and turnover rates. Do any regional, electoral district or temporal patterns emerge. Propose a theory or theories that may account for these spatial and temporal variations. What empirical evidence lends preliminary support for your theory?

2. Prior to the Civil War and the enactment of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1865, Virginia was divided by stark economic differences revolving around the institution of human slavery. In parts of the state, slave labor dominated the local economies; in other parts of the state, it was a minor or insignificant economic interest. Did Virginia state legislative districts with higher slaveholding populations have higher or lower tenure or turnover rates? What relationship would you expect to find and why? To begin probing this relationship, consult the GEOSTAT U.S. Census Browser ( to retrieve the relevant information on slaveholding by county (and also therefore each state legislative district). Do any patterns emerge, do they hold over time (1790-1860)? Why or why not?

Electoral Districts and Candidate Recruitment

One of the defining characteristics of the American form of representative government is its electoral districting system. In the United States, elections for governmental office occur within well defined geographic spaces. Often these electoral districts include several smaller political jurisdictions-for example, towns, cities and counties. Since 1776, electoral districts for the Virginia Senate often included more than one county.

1. Many factors affect the process of candidate recruitment within an electoral district-local political parties, the popularity of the incumbent, the decision of the incumbent to seek reelection, and the personal ambition and political skills of individual candidates. Another relevant factor to consider is the availability of politically viable candidates. From where do these challengers emerge? One conventional expectation is from lower elected offices. How can the plausibility of this expectation be tested? Consider examining state senate electoral districts composed of different numbers of county and town jurisdictions. Do tenure or turnover rates vary in a meaningful way among these districts? If so, why, where and when? Is there a need to qualify your conclusions in any way?

Note: the Project is presently compiling the names and election vote totals of all challengers for General Assembly seats from 1945 to 2001, and for U.S. House and U.S. Senate Seats from 1851 to 2001. This data, when available, will provide an additional means for examining these questions.


In 1776, Virginia adopted its first state constitution. In his Notes on the State of Virginia (1787), Thomas Jefferson criticized the original constitutional design of the Virginia General Assembly because the composition of the state Senate was too similar to the membership of the House of Delegates. Jefferson contended that because the two branches were "chosen by the same electors, at the same time, and out of the same subjects, the choice falls of course on men of the same description."

1. Consider Jefferson's criticism. Why did Jefferson believe similar types of members in both branches of the General Assembly were a problem? Does this criticism apply to the General Assembly or other bicameral legislatures today? Why or why not?

2. Was Jefferson's criticism credible? How can it be tested? Although full biographical studies of members of the General Assembly would be the ideal method, can we test the plausibility of Jefferson's claim by analyzing how many members of the House and Senate had prior legislative experience in the other branch of the General Assembly? What would this information reveal? Was the path between the House and Senate circular? How has it changed over time?

State Legislative Careers

Elected legislators leave or are excluded from their respective legislative branches for various reasons. Sometimes legislators give up their seats to run for higher office, or to pursue private-sector opportunities. Other times, members die or voluntarily retire. Whatever the reason, these individual decisions reflect back upon the perceived desirability of serving within a particular legislative branch.

1. Record and analyze the number and type of reasons why individuals were excluded, resigned, or stopped serving in the Virginia House of Delegates and Senate. How many total and when? Of these, how many died, how many quit in order to take different governmental positions. Were these other positions state or federal jobs? What other reasons barred individuals from serving in the Assembly? How much legislative experience did these excluded individuals have at the time of their departure? How do these levels of experience compare to their legislative cohorts at the time of their exclusion?

To complete this assignment, you will need to consult the footnotes of The General Assembly of Virginia, Cynthia Leonard, comp. (1978), and, for more recent years, The Almanac of Virginia Politics, Flora Carter et al.

General Assembly Legislative District Types and Group Representation Strategies

Several different types of electoral districts have been employed in American elections. In state elections, U.S. Senators and governors are elected in at-large (or statewide) districts. Other electoral districts types typically have been used to elect candidates to state legislatures. Two of the most common state legislative district types are known as single-member and multimember districts. A single-member district is a district in which only one candidate wins the election; multimember districts, by contrast, elect more than one candidate. Before 1982, the Virginia House of Delegates elected some of its members from single-member districts and some from multimember districts.

1. Are tenure and turnover rates affected by electoral district type? Do legislators from single-member districts, on average, serve longer in the House of Delegates than legislators from multimember districts? Why or why not?

2. Analyze the relationship between district type and the election and retention of legislators from historically underrepresented groups (e.g., women and African-Americans). Were individuals within these groups more likely to be elected in single-member or multimember districts. Were members of these groups more likely to serve longer if they represented either one of these district types? Propose a theory that explains what the data you collected reports.

General Assembly Leadership Positions

Legislatures typically find it useful to elect legislative leaders to tend to institutional, policy and partisan concerns. The U.S. House of Representatives elects the Speaker of the House; the U.S. Senate elects a Majority Leader. In both branches of the U.S. Congress other leadership positions also are elected, including the minority party's Leader, legislative whips and campaign committee chairs. The Virginia General Assembly also has an internally elected leadership structure that includes a Speaker in the House of Delegates and a President Pro Tempore in the Virginia Senate.

1. The convention wisdom is that the most experienced members of the General Assembly are elected to its leadership positions Is this true? At the time of their selection, did these legislative leaders possess levels of legislative experience that typically exceeded the experience levels of their legislative colleagues. Were these patterns similar for House and Senate leaders? How have these patterns changed over time?

See also Louis Manarin, Officers of the Senate of Virginia, 1776-1996, Richmond: VA: Commonwealth of Virginia, 1997; Bruce F. Jamerson, Speakers and Clerks of the Virginia House of Delegates, 1776-1996, Richmond, VA: Commonwealth of Virginia, 1996.