Moving town elections to Nov. should boost participation

Published 5:38 pm Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Democracy is much like a garden. It has to be tended to flourish. Without attention and care, it will produce less and less until one day it vanishes.

Voting laws are the fertilizer that encourages the growth of self-government. A vibrant democracy needs a voting system that encourages us to participate. Only when we can and do vote does the garden flourish.

Across the nation, there are efforts to do the opposite, to restrict voter access in order to reduce Election Day participation. Such efforts amount to more than neglect. They are like introducing kudzu into our garden with the stated goal of choking out everything else.

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We should be pleased that Virginia’s General Assembly is fertilizing and hoeing our democratic garden. Last year, the General Assembly expanded the ease with which Virginians can vote by relaxing the rules surrounding absentee ballots, expanding early voting, removing voter ID restrictions and declaring Election Day a Virginia holiday.

This year, the Assembly continued tending the garden by eliminating the illogical May municipal election cycle that Virginia has doggedly clung to. A bill signed by Gov. Ralph Northam last week moves all municipal elections to the first Tuesday in November. Thus, Virginia voters will no longer have to keep track of town or city council elections that are held six months before all other elections.

Some cities and towns, including Windsor, have already voted to hold their council elections on November’s Election Day while others, including Smithfield, have held out for the traditional May election cycle.

It’s never made a lot of sense to hold a separate election cycle for town and city councils. It required county and city registrars to coordinate separate filing deadlines and to set up polling places, complete with poll workers, twice every other year.

The impact on good governance was subtler, though quite real. May elections kept everybody guessing, particularly in small towns. Town Council incumbents didn’t see a need to make a big deal of upcoming elections. With any luck, and as often happened, few people even remembered an election cycle was pending, and thus, few people showed an interest in running for council seats.

And accompanying the low interest among candidates has been the notoriously low interest among voters. In Smithfield, only about 15% of the town’s 6,000-plus registered voters generally show up to vote during council elections, and that’s when there’s competition. In one recent year, the voter turnout was an abysmal 2%. Think about that. Two percent of voters decided how the town would be governed.

Elected officials tend to be more constituent-conscious when there are more constituents (voters) actively watching and participating. And constituent interest increases when there is an active election cycle with challengers out campaigning.

Thus, May elections have generally been good if you were an incumbent council member. Low voter turnout, as far as incumbency is concerned, simply means that less energy is required to remain on council.

That doesn’t mean you end up with bad government, but it does mean you end up with government that doesn’t feel threatened. And at some point, all elected officials need to feel threatened if they are to continue being responsive to the wishes of those they serve.

Moving municipal elections to November is not a panacea. The Windsor Town Council became alarmed by a lack of candidates and low voter interest. The council moved elections to November in the hope that it would generate more interest. So far, the move has done little to generate the desired level of interest.

In the long run, though, moving town elections to November is a step in the right direction for cities and towns. At the very least, voters will have no excuse to forget there was an election coming. Now, it will be up to all of us to decide whether we will tend the garden as we should.


John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is