After tiebreaker, Senate passes bill moving local elections to November

By: - January 21, 2021 2:55 pm

Voters at a polling station in Buckingham County, Nov. 3, 2020. (Parker Michels-Boyce / For the Virginia Mercury)

The Virginia Senate passed legislation Thursday to move all May local elections to November, with Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax casting a tiebreaking vote to put it over the top.

Many cities and counties already hold local elections in November, and all localities currently have the option to switch from May to November. But 16 cities and roughly 100 towns still hold elections in May.

Supporters of the bill say low-turnout May elections are undemocratic, with fewer voters involved in important contests for local school board positions, council seats and mayorships.

“Nobody votes in the May election,” said Sen. Lionell Spruill Sr., D-Chesapeake, who sponsored the legislation.

Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, voted with most of the chamber’s Democrats to produce a 19-19 tie, which Fairfax, as the presiding officer of the Senate, broke with a yes vote. Chase said voters are “conditioned to vote in November already.”

“It actually puts the power in the hands of the people instead of politicians,” Chase said.

The bill has drawn pushback from the Virginia Municipal League, which argued localities should have the flexibility to decide their own election calendars. Opponents of the change have also argued that municipal issues like schools, parks and trash pickup should be nonpartisan, and putting local offices on the ballot with higher-profile political contests will inject more partisanship.

“Let the municipalities decide,” said Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, one of two Democrats who voted with most Republicans in opposition to the measure. “Let us chart our own course.”

In a statement, the Municipal League said localities that choose to hold May elections — among other reasons — opt to do so to keep local elections focused on local issues and hold the cost of campaigns down.

“The coincidence of local elections with those at the state and federal level inherently raises the level of partisanship of all elections, regardless of whether candidates are running without any party affiliation,” the group said. “By the same token, it introduces partisan politics to nonpartisan local issues; political parties make little difference when it comes to community projects like paving roads and keeping the streetlights on.”

To that end, running local, state, and federal elections simultaneously makes it more difficult to keep voters informed. Media attention leading up to November becomes more focused on statewide and national issues, leaving less time and space for discussion of local candidates and issues. This also raises the cost of campaigning for local candidates – especially for candidates new to the field – who have to compete for name recognition from the bottom of an even longer ballot.

Speaking against the proposal, Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin, noted he once helped Petersen get elected to a Fairfax City Council seat in the late 1990s because he thought Petersen would be good for a job no matter what his political leanings were.

“I want to be sure that I’m on the record saying I thought he was a Republican,” Stanley said. “And maybe sometimes you do too.”

The bill now heads to the House of Delegates. If approved by both chambers, the change would take effect for elections in 2022.

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Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville. Contact him at [email protected]