Bill may shift elections to November

Published 7:23 pm Tuesday, February 2, 2021

November might become the only month for general elections in Virginia under a recently passed Senate bill.

Historically, about 100 towns — including Smithfield — and more than a dozen cities, including several in Hampton Roads, have held their local elections in May. But that might change if the legislation passes the House of Delegates.

Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, a Democrat, cast the tie-breaking vote to advance the bill. The decision, save for a few senators, fell mostly along party lines, with Democrats supporting it and Republicans opposing.

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The rationale for the bill, according to those who support it, is that turnout for elections in May is typically low. Combining local, state and federal races in November will increase voter turnout. Supporters also say the change will save money by eliminating the need to run multiple elections, and it may also reduce voter confusion if all voting for all local, state and federal offices happens at the same time.

But those who oppose the move say mixing local political decisions into statewide and national elections would divert attention from important local ballot issues, tainting those decisions with unnecessary partisan rancor as a result. And some opponents also see it as a power grab by the state, stripping local governments of the power to set their own agenda independent of what’s happening in Richmond or Washington.

Senate Bill 1157 did pass out of the Senate, but as of Jan. 28 had yet to be docketed in the House of Delegates as the General Assembly has not yet reached the crossover date of Feb. 6 for bill exchange between the legislative chambers.

“As this bill is written, I oppose it,” said Del. Emily Brewer, a Republican whose 64th District includes part of Isle of Wight County. “Towns should be able to make their own choice in regards to election dates.”

Two of Smithfield’s elected officials also said they’d like to see the local election protocol stay the same.

“We have had many discussions about moving to November elections and have every time decided to stay in May for several reasons,” said councilmember Randy Pack, who added he agreed with a recent statement from the Virginia Municipal League, which opposes the change.

According to the VML, “more than half of Virginia localities have chosen to hold their elections in May because it better suits the needs of their communities to separate local elections from those for state and federal offices.”

The VML continued: “May elections offer more opportunities for new candidates to run for local office by keeping the cost of running a campaign lower. They keep the focus of local elections on local, nonpartisan issues and give voters more of an opportunity to learn about the differences between candidates via local news and discussion forums. For many cities and towns, May elections also contribute to a locality’s broader sense of community.”

About 950 people — 15% of the town’s eligible voters — cast a ballot in the May 2020 election.

In the current system, Smithfield residents who vote in May all cast their ballot at the Smithfield Center “and the candidates can be there to meet and greet voters on the day of the election — I think that adds a personal touch to the small-town election,” said Pack, who acknowledged that November elections would have a greater voter turnout.

Council member Renee Rountree echoed that sentiment.

“I knew this was a change being considered,” Rountree said. “I believe local elections are best held outside of the natural confusion of the larger November election cycle.  In a year of a presidential election especially, local candidates would have a hard time gaining people’s attention if they were all together.”

Southampton County Registrar Lynn Burgess said that should the elections all be done in November, “They would definitely have a much better turnout [of voters]. It’s very low in May.”

More programming and coding, she added, will make the whole process more complex. For example, there could be ballots intended specifically for residents in a town such as Boykins; they might have to vote for a council member, but different ones for those voters in the Boykins district.

Another factor will be cost. Moving an election from spring to fall, said Burgess, won’t eliminate a town’s cost of paying its portion for coding and creating ballots. There’s no set fee for such.

“The price depends on how many names and issues are on the ballot,” she said. “We are also required to run an ad in the paper, there’s the cost of poll workers and if you have to employ someone to drop off and pick up voting machines.”

Other constant factors in voting are logistics and accuracy testing, as well media programming of the machine. The latter process uses a stick much like a thumb drive or memory stick in which to store or upload information. On each voting machine, testing is done by someone outside the registrar’s office, such as an impartial representative of the company that made the counting devices.

“Party chairs know and can observe the testing, which makes for transparency,” Burgess said.

Staff writer Stephen H. Cowles contributed to this story.