Voters in the City of Falls Church have chosen their four candidates to serve the next four years on the City Council, and the referendum to sell the City’s water system passed by a landslide, but the biggest news of Tuesday’s election here was the overall voter turnout.
The 54.6 percent voter turnout, a total of 4,969 voting, Tuesday was by far the highest in memory for a Falls Church City Council election, and aside from some robust population growth in recent years, the single most important cause was clearly the shift of the election date in the City from May to November.
In the last May City Council election here in 2012 the voter turnout was 26 percent – less than half the turnout of this Tuesday – and the top vote getter had 1,293 votes. This time, the first ever November election, the voter turnout was 54.6 percent and the top vote-getter – Marybeth Connelly – received 3,516 votes, most likely the most ever for a City Council candidate in City history.
The record-setting nature of this election was unable to be fully confirmed only due to murky record keeping at City Hall. To the extent Tuesday’s numbers are the greatest ever for the City since its incorporation as an independent city in 1948, a more lengthy search through dusty archives is required, and the City’s Voter Registrar office was not prepared yesterday to go back to its earliest records that start in 1971. Still, it can be plausibly argued for now that both the voter turnout number and the totals for the top vote-getters are both easily new City records (if a more complete search can be concluded by next week, it will be reported in this paper).
The turnout this Tuesday proved a mighty vindication for those who battled to move the date of City elections from May to November, including two who were on the ballot this Tuesday. The battle began in 2008 when Lawrence Webb, elected to the School Board in this Tuesday’s election, was first elected to the City Council and began raising the question of shifting the election date in order to engender the participation of more voters.
The initiative led to one of the more contentious struggles on the City Council in memory. Dan Sze, re-elected to the City Council this Tuesday, was among those on the Council then who sided with then-Mayor Robin Gardner, Dan Maller and then-Vice Mayor Hal Lippman in a 4-3 vote in January 2010 to move the elections from May to November (Webb voting “no” along with Baroukh and David Snyder).
Opponents sided with some local civic activists who opposed the change adamantly. Some loose language resulted from the heated nature of the debate that even suggested proponents of the change from May to November were “un-American,” because it would diminish the impact on local elections of those who take the most interest in their outcome. There were also concerns that November elections would taint the non-partisan nature of local elections by having them on the same ballot with partisan races.
The result was that three Council members who supported the switch failed to be returned to the Council in the May 2010 election (Maller and Lippman defeated and Sze not running), with a 22 percent voter turnout, and added Ira Kaylin, Johannah Barry and Ron Peppe, with the new Council electing Baroukh mayor. Subsequently a vote by the new Council was taken on October 13, 2010 to undo the May-to-November switch, with the proviso that the matter be finally resolved by a public referendum, scheduled for November 2011. Council members Baroukh, Snyder, Barry and Kaylin voted “yes” and Gardner and Webb voted against the undo (Peppe was absent).
But with the lead-up to the referendum in November 2011 raising divisivness to a fever pitch in the community, the outcome proved a major embarrassment for the proponents of May elections. By almost exactly a two-to-one margin, voters preferred local elections to be shifted to November. As per the terms of the referendum, the final May Council election was held in 2012, with a 26 percent turnout.
With this Tuesday’s record turnout, former Mayor Gardner told the News-Press she felt “vindicated” by the result, that the kind of boost among residents of interest and concern for local issues that proponents of the change argued from the beginning resulted.