Holding local elections in the fall is the right move

January 20, 2021 12:01 am

Voters at the Dillwyn Rescue Squad Building in Dillwyn, Va., November 3, 2020. (Parker Michels-Boyce / For the Virginia Mercury)

You can hear the passion in Jeanne Hanewich’s voice any time she discusses citizen participation in local government. Nor is this a topic the Chesapeake stay-at-home mother — and former paralegal — just took up.

She’s worked for several years to get Chesapeake to move local elections — for City Council, School Board and mayor — from May to November. The springtime elections in even-numbered years have notoriously anemic turnout. The fall elections always attract many more voters, especially when the presidential contest is part of the mix.

The low turnout is “not good for democracy,” Hanewich, who founded Change the Date Virginia, told me Tuesday. She supports SB1157, a bill sponsored by Sen. Lionell Spruill Sr., a Chesapeake Democrat. The bill would force 16 cities and more than 100 towns, according to a published report, to shift their local elections to November.

The Senate Committee on Local Government passed the bill 12-3 this week, with bipartisan support. It now heads to the full Senate.

There’s much to like in the legislation. The only thing giving me heartburn is the notion the General Assembly would require localities to switch, thus usurping the role of local governments.

I know, I know: We’re a Dillon Rule state, meaning localities have limited authority in Virginia. That places them under the thumb of legislators, who enjoy throwing their weight around.

And yes, because of voter interest, it’s fairer to hold elections when more people will show up. That means candidates won’t cater just to a narrow, energized portion of the electorate that would turn out no matter what.

Governing magazine noted in 2015 that stand-alone municipal elections usually draw “only a small subset of voters – who often tend to be Whiter, wealthier and older.” When more voters are expected, candidates have to broaden their appeal.

Still, it’s a mite surprising state senators and delegates would broach this issue. They usually seem disinterested about such local matters.

The legislation doesn’t sit well with some local council members, as you’d expect.

Folks like Mayor McKinley Price in Newport News, where the local voting takes place in May, oppose the change. “Focus on Newport News and you don’t get tied up in national issues,” he told WAVY about the spring canvass.

Mayor Rick West of Chesapeake has told me previously he, too, wants to keep the current system. His council colleagues fought even holding a public hearing on the issue a few years ago. That’s akin to putting their heads in the sand.

Here’s another factor lurking in the background: Though local elections are nonpartisan, political parties often endorse slates of candidates. It’s common knowledge Republicans usually hold sway in Chesapeake, while Democrats win in cities like Norfolk.

That’s one reason Sen. Spruill, the bill’s sponsor, said you can’t accuse him of playing party favorites.

“I’m looking out for citizens, not politicians,” Spruill told me. “People on city councils are looking out for themselves.”

If that were disqualifying, however, few politicos would win public office. But I digress.

A switch from May to November would definitely save costs — something that’s no minor point when the pandemic has wreaked havoc on local and state budgets.

Chesapeake spent nearly $146,000 for the May 2020 election, in which only 21 percent of registered voters showed up. Mary Lynn Pinkerman, the city’s general registrar, told me by email that nearly 75 percent voted in the November election — though the figure is skewed because it included a presidential contest.

But even in November 2019, Pinkerman said, 37 percent showed up for the state elections.

Hanewich, leader of the civic group, said she tried to place a referendum on the local ballot, but she failed to get the necessary 16,000 signatures. She said she spoke at the committee hearing Monday to extol the benefits of Spruill’s bill.

“It should be less confusing for voters,” she said.

Hanewich is right. Though I wish the General Assembly would stay out of it.

So pass me the Tums. I’ll get over it.

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Roger Chesley
Roger Chesley

Longtime columnist and editorial writer Roger Chesley worked at the (Newport News) Daily Press and The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot from 1997 through 2018. He previously worked at newspapers in Cherry Hill, N.J., and Detroit. Reach him at [email protected]