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Can Falls Church ban parties endorsing local candidates?

Virginia state law prohibits ballots from listing partisan affiliation for local elections. The Falls Church City Council wants to go a step further, banning political parties from endorsing candidates in city races altogether. Can they do this, and with extremely limited public input?

Photo by yakfur on Flickr.

In the wake of two major shakeups to Falls Church city politics, the City Council is set to vote tonight on amendments to the city charter that were just drawn up at the council work session a week ago.

Under the amendments, candidates for the city who are nominated by political party primary or convention will not be listed at all on the ballot. Candidates can only be nominated by petition, the way non-party candidates get on the ballot today.

The amendments warn against not just the evils of partisan elections, but of partisan candidates.

Why the rush to change the charter? Under Virginia's Dillon's Rule system, the changes need Virginia General Assembly approval, so the city council wants to get the amendments into its legislative package in time for the next General Assembly session in January.

Unfortunately, it seems the City Council is putting that deadline ahead of opportunity for public input. This is an especially unfortunate move after voters just dealt the council a harsh rebuke in this month's election.

Voters rejected City Council efforts to keep city elections in May, passing a referendum to move city elections to November by a stunningly large 2-to-1 margin. Referendum opponents warned voters a move to November could make city elections more partisan, but voters ignored those arguments.

Then, just days later, the civic organization Citizens for a Better City (CBC) announced it would no longer endorse local political candidates. As the Falls Church News-Press editorialized, the changes left a sudden void:

So now, there is a flattened and broadened political landscape: no direction and twice the voters. One could call that a more "purely democratic" environment, but it may advisable to revisit Plato's "The Republic" for a poignant critique of the shortcomings, or, better, short livelihood, of "pure democracies."

The CBC may have thought it could dictate by its action a newly-leveled political environment, but its withdrawal will likely encourage other groups, or the formation of other groups, to fill the vacuum. No wish to mandate that future elections be non-partisan, for example, can prevent the exercise of First Amendment rights to the contrary.

A new dictate seems precisely what the city council is proposing. Rather than regrouping, reassessing, and gathering public input, leaders are rushing ahead under deadline pressure on proposed amendments that may or may not reflect the desires of current voters, never mind future ones.

What's more, it's not clear if any of the proposed amendments are either constitutional or enforceable. Can the City Council decide which groups of voters can or cannot publicly endorse political candidates? What if a party doesn't formally endorse, but does a mailing without a candidate's approval or knowledge? Would that candidate be thrown off the ballot anyway?

What about donations? Many city council and school board members have donated to political candidates. For example, Council Member Lawrence Webb, whose name is on the amendments, donated $100 to Democratic Delegate Charniele Herring's campaign in 2009. Under the amendments, would it be enough for Webb to swear off Democratic references on campaign literature? Or would he have to swear off all Democratic affiliations and donations for the duration of his term?

Just weeks after voters settled Falls Church's biggest electoral controversy, will the City Council open a new one? We may find out tonight.

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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No. Very simple First Amendment case.

by Redline SOS on Nov 28, 2011 2:49 pm • linkreport

Insanity. Typical of the backward thinking practiced by that city council for years. Yet another group of self-styled 'progressives' who are really old-style liberals who care more for censorship than freedom.

by Pelham1861 on Nov 28, 2011 3:00 pm • linkreport

This reminds of that saying about not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.

by Cavan on Nov 28, 2011 3:29 pm • linkreport

Sounds like FC needs to vote itself out of existence and revert to Fairfax County.

by Paulus on Nov 28, 2011 3:50 pm • linkreport

If Falls Church tried to do what the headline suggests, yes, it would be a clear First Amendment violation; political parties have a right to endorse and spend money in support of candidates, and a municipality can't prohibit them from doing so.

But based on the ordinance, I think all they're doing is eliminating an alternative, party-based means of getting on the ballot; rather than having a choice between party nomination and signatures, you'd only be able to get on the ballot by petition. There doesn't seem to be anything prohibiting party endorsement of candidates, or of candidates from saying "I'm a Republican, Vote for Me".

Even though the CLEAR motivation behind the change is to minimize party involvement and to save their own jobs, it's probably constitutional if I'm reading it right.

by Jon M. on Nov 28, 2011 4:57 pm • linkreport

The headline on this story is WAY overblown. Obviously the Falls Church city council cannot prevent the Democratic party, the Republican party, the Libertarian party, or the Communist party from endorsing anyone they choose for any election.

What the proposal would codify would be that the sole method for placing one's name on the ballot in a local election in the City of Falls Church will be by means of a petition. In other words, if you want to run for a local elected office, get a reasonable number of your neighbors in the community to sign a paper enabling your name to be on the ballot. This is IMHO the best way to ensure that candidates for office have a modicum of support.

Once a person qualifies for the ballot, nothing in any of the proposals would (or could, under the 1st amendment) bar any political party or other organization from expressing an opinion on who they support. Nor would the proposals mean that if an organization expressed an opinion on a candidate (either before or after the nominating petitions are completed), that any person who had qualified for the ballot would become unqualified or have their name removed. This is exactly the same as the present system, and I do not see how it could be any different and still be constitutional.

Also, to be fair, both the local Democratic and Republican parties have indicated that they have no intention of endorsing any candidates for the offices in question.

by rextrex on Nov 28, 2011 5:33 pm • linkreport

Rextrex -- I agree with you that nothing prevents parties from endorsing after a candidate has otherwise qualified for the ballot. Likewise candidates, once qualified for the ballot, can run explicitly as Democrats or Republicans. But at some point this notion of non-partisan elections then becomes a sham. Parties are either going to play a role behind the scenes, absent transparency, or they will begin to endorse openly. Without the CBC imprimateur, parties will step up within one election cycle. This is exactly what happened in Arlington. The bottom line is that party endorsements are coming and it really cannot be any other way.

by Arlington Dem on Nov 29, 2011 10:06 am • linkreport

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