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Nov. elections would strengthen Falls Church's democracy

An outlier among Virginia cities and counties, Falls Church holds its local elections in May, but a referendum on this November's ballot would move them to November starting in 2013.

Photo by rhall2ur on Flickr.

Most other Virginia communities hold their local elections in November, and turnout for November elections is typically about double that of May elections. The move would also save about $18,000 per cycle in electoral administrative costs.

So why are some opposing the referendum? A closer look at arguments against moving city elections to November reveals an undemocratic undertone.

The Falls Church League of Women Voters compiled a list of pros and cons of May and November elections. Oddly, though, November gets only 3 bullets to make its case while May gets 5. Here are a few of the arguments against moving the elections to November:

"Voters who don't pay attention to local issues decide close City races." Since when is the goal of election dates to manipulate the composition of the electorate—especially in a deliberate, undemocratic attempt to drive down turnout? Falls Church has a long history of longtime homeowners battling newer residents and this makes the May election date sound like a way to keep power in the hands of a select group. Considering how often we hear pundits bemoaning low voter turnout, it's bizarre that May elections supporters would present a smaller electorate as a feature, not a bug.

"Longer, more complex ballot." You know how many competitive races for elected office there are on my ballot in Falls Church this November? Zero. Del. Jim Scott and Commonwealth's Attorney candidate Theo Stamos are unopposed. And State Sen. Dick Saslaw faces only token opposition. Even if there were a number of competitive races, residents of the Washington, DC region are some of the most (over?)educated people in the world. Two more choices to make on the November ballot are going to make their heads explode?

"Elections more partisan." Falls Church cherishes its nonpartisan elections and groups like Citizens for a Better City continue to work to find nonpartisan solutions to city problems. But if today's voters don't share the anti-partisan passion of previous generations and want to use political affiliation to help inform their decisions, should the law be used as a tool to stop them? This is another attempt to justify manipulating election dates to affect election results.

"Accountability for incumbents who approve budget." The City Council sets the annual budget in April, so May elections give voters the chance for instant feedback. But can't people still hold incumbents accountable in November? As Mayor Robin Gardner told the Washington Post in 2009, "I find it troubling that some people believe our citizens aren't going to remember how people handled the budget situation six months later."

We shouldn't ask voters to go to the polls any more often than necessary. In 2012, some Virginia voters may be asked to go to the polls 4 times: Presidential and local primaries on March 6; local elections on May 1; other primaries including Congressional races on June 12; and the general election on November 6. From work conflicts to travel plans, elections are easy enough to miss. Why voluntarily add election fatigue as an additional turnout reducer, and at such a high cost to taxpayers to boot?

Concerns have also been raised that the referendum text is unnecessarily long and could confuse voters. Judge for yourself via the Falls Church League of Women Voters:

Should the City of Falls Church amend Section 3.01 of its Charter to hold elections of members of City Council in the month of November rather than the month of May by deleting the current Section 3.01 in its entirety and replacing it with the following language:

Sec. 3.01 Election of councilmembers

In the regular municipal election to be held on the first Tuesday in November, 2013, and every four (4) years thereafter, four (4) councilmembers shall be elected for terms of four (4) years each, such terms of office to begin on the first day of January, 2014, and end on the last day of December, 2017; succeeding terms shall begin on the first day of January following the year of election and end on the last day of December, four (4) years thereafter. In the regular municipal election to be held on the first Tuesday in November, 2015, and every four (4) years thereafter, three (3) councilmembers shall be elected for terms of four (4) years each, such terms of office to begin on the first day of January, 2016, and end on the last day of December, 2019; succeeding terms shall begin on the first day of January following the year of election and end on the last day of December four (4) years thereafter. Councilmembers serving on council who were elected in May, 2010, and those members elected in May, 2012, shall have their term of office shortened by six months but shall continue in office until their successors have been elected at the November general election and have been qualified to serve.

Yes _____ No _____

What do you think? Should Falls Church voters approve the referendum to move local elections to November?
Miles Grant grew up in Boston riding the Green Line, and has lived in Northern Virginia riding the Orange Line since 2002. Also blogging at The Green Miles, he believes enhancing smart growth makes the DC area not just more environmentally sustainable, but a healthier and more vibrant place to live, work and play. 


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You should probably change your lead. While Virginia counties do traditionally hold their elections in November, two-thirds of Virginia cities and almost all Virginia towns hold their elections in May.

Falls Church is not an outlier. It's just a city.

by c5karl on Oct 13, 2011 3:19 pm • linkreport

Two more things you overlooked: If Fairfax City is representative of Virginia cities, all council members are elected on an at-large basis. So voters aren't just asked to choose a Mayor and a local councilmember. They're asked to choose a Mayor and six councilmembers.

Since the elections are non-partisan, there are no party label cues to help low-information voters make some sort of guess at whom them might want to support.

Counties voters, on the other hand, only vote for board chairman and the one supervisor representing that magisterial district. And if Fairfax County is representative, these are partisan elections.

In summary:

City elections (using Fairfax City as an example): Seven seats on ballots. No party ID cues. May election.

County elections (using Fairfax County as an example): Two seats on ballots. Part IDs printed on ballot. November election.

This isn't just a matter of timing. These are very different ways of selecting local governing bodies. I think you've way oversimplified what's at issue.

by c5karl on Oct 13, 2011 3:27 pm • linkreport

Wait, what? Politicians messing with elections to get re-elected? Is that news? This is just a different form of gerrymandering.

by Jasper on Oct 13, 2011 9:13 pm • linkreport

After reading these comments, I wish Arlington were classified as a city instead of a county. I'd love to be able to make the ACDC obsolete and get better people running this place.

by TGEOA on Oct 14, 2011 9:28 am • linkreport

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