Vienna leaders long have fought to continue holding Town Council elections on the first Monday of each May, saying it keeps the contests non-partisan and ensures that better-informed – albeit fewer – voters cast ballots.
But Gov. Northam (D) on March 12 announced that one of 80 bills he recently signed into law was a measure patroned by state Sen. Lionell Spruill Sr. (D-Chesapeake-Norfolk) that will switch all municipal elections to November starting in 2022.
Spruill’s bill barely passed in both houses of the General Assembly.
The House of Delegates approved the bill on a 50-44-1 vote. Del. Mark Keam (D-Oakton-Vienna), the lone abstention, said he favors holding elections in November to save money and improve accessibility, but given his promise to support Vienna elections in May – and because his vote would not tip the balance – he abstained.
In the Senate, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D) broke a 19-19 tie vote to pass the bill. Most of Northern Virginia’s largely Democratic delegation voted for the bill, but state Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax-Vienna), called the measure a “truly terrible idea.”
Virginia towns and cities traditionally have been governed by their charters, which in the city of Fairfax and town of Vienna stipulate spring municipal elections, Petersen said. Historically, the reason for this is so federal employees, who under federal law may not participate in partisan races, could run and serve in local offices, he said.
“These localities have kept their ‘independent’ elections as a matter of local pride and tradition,” Petersen said. “They are not seeking this change, which is being forced on them by partisan activists. The desire to make all elections based on partisanship is a bad idea, which will chase away qualified people.”
Spruill told the Sun Gazette he sponsored the bill after receiving comments from many Virginia residents.
The bill would save states and localities money and has the support of many registrars, who already are overburdened by having to hold presidential primaries in March of election years, municipal elections in May, state primaries in June, Spruill said. Holding fewer elections at schools, which often are used as polling places, would improve safety there, he said.
Spruill said his main reason for sponsoring the bill was to give all voters the chance to vote in municipal elections, which typically have just 10-percent turnout. Voters in stand-alone municipal elections also “tend to be older, wealthier and whiter,” he said, citing a 2015 Governing Magazine report.
“Democracy is strongest when we allow everyone to participate,” he said.
“This bill is about democracy and participation at its core.”
Many local NAACP chapters, Change the Date Virginia, Fair Elections Center, Advancement Project and Virginia Civic Engagement Table supported the bill, Spruill said. Most of the bill’s opponents were local officials who did not support the election-date change, he added.
Moving municipal elections to November will not affect Fairfax County significantly, but will save Vienna money staring next year, said county spokesman Brian Worthy. Vienna currently pays for its elections, reimbursing the county government for ballot-printing costs and election officers’ pay. The county, which already covers other administrative costs for Vienna elections, will foot the bill starting in 2022, he said.
“Other than financial impacts, the county will have to print different ballots for the four precincts in the town that include the town races, but we don’t anticipate the need for any additional election officers,” Worthy said.
Vienna Town Clerk Melanie Clark said she budgets $9,000 per year to reimburse the county for election expenses, but said she was unsure whether the town would need to pay anything for November elections.
Vienna Town Council members had a range of reactions – mostly negative – to the change.
“I am hopeful that our residents and candidates will remain non-partisan, as our charter mandates,” said Mayor Linda Colbert. “It is important that our town’s local issues are not obscured by national politics. Vienna has a history of supporting candidates that truly care about and understand the town.”
Council member Ray Brill Jr. said the legislation was not needed, especially during a pandemic. Legislators instead should have focused on insuring as many people as possible are vaccinated, reopening Virginia’s economy and public schools, and supporting people who lost jobs or businesses because of the pandemic, he said.
There was no groundswell among voters to move the elections from May to November, said Brill, who added he did not receive one such request.
“May elections allowed the elections to be local, non-partisan and issue-focused,” Brill said. “This new law drastically changes that focus and we become a small part of a larger election landscape that includes county and state-wide elections on a recurring basis, and national elections every four years. Our non-partisan elections now become part of the partisan process.”
Council member Steve Potter also worried local issues would get lost in the shuffle of crowded, partisan elections in November, but added, “We’ll have to adjust to it.”
Council member Nisha Patel preferred May elections as well, saying they focused on town issues.
“The voters understand the candidates’ stance on local issues and it sends a message to Council about what the people want to see accomplished in the town,” she said. “I would love to see record voter turnout for the upcoming town elections in May, as more people become engaged with their local government.”
Council member Howard Springsteen said Vienna elections typically draw few voters and moving them to November greatly will increase turnout. About half of Virginia’s municipal elections already occur in November, he said.
Council member Charles Anderson said he understands the concern that national and local issues could become conflated in November elections, but supports anything that promotes voter participation.
“You either believe in democracy and the ability of people to make wise choices, or you don’t,” he said. “I’m a believer in democracy.”