It became one of the most contentious Falls Church City Council meetings seen in many moons, and it’s not surprising why.
At Monday’s work session in City Hall, Mayor Robin Gardner wound up in a heated exchange with Councilmen David Snyder and Nader Baroukh at the end of an intense, hour-long discussion of whether or not the City of Falls Church should move the date of its municipal elections from May to November. Snyder and Baroukh argued the strongest that the matter should not be on the agenda for this Monday’s City Council meeting, and when Mayor Gardner concluded the discussion with a wrap-up that included her decision that she would put it on the agenda, that’s when the shouting started.
It’s no wonder tempers were frayed on this issue. While opponents of moving the election date avoided the voter turnout issue, or even the suggestion that those fewer numbers who come out to vote in May are somehow more qualified voters because they care more. They argued instead that the City Charter is sacrosanct, and to appeal to the higher authority of the State Code (which allows for the switch) would violate it. They also argued that it was the wrong time to be debating the matter because of the other pressing issues facing the Council now, but buying time is an age-old tactic for killing a measure someone opposes.
But, in fact, most of the opposition to changing the date to help ensure more citizen participation in municipal elections (since November voter turnouts are routinely two and three times higher than in May elections) comes from those who prefer the ability of highly-motivated special issue and interest groups to gain a relative advantage from low voter turnouts, increasing the likelihood that the will of a minority might be imposed on the majority. And, in Falls Church’s case, even though the elections will remain non-partisan, Republican leaders in the City know they are in the minority here, winning only a third of the vote even in the statewide Republican sweep this month.
So, the Council finds itself in an interesting bind. Whichever way it goes on the issue, it will be favoring one electoral group over another. If it does nothing, or even if it delays action, it will de facto be favoring one group over the other. Postponing action of leaving the elections in May will advantage Republicans and small special interest citizen groups. Acting to move the election to November will advantage a significant majority of citizens by eliminating the advantages for the few that come from lower turnouts, and by enfranchising a significantly greater number of City residents, that includes half the City’s population that migrates in or out of residence here every five years, giving them a more institutionalized opportunity to vote.
As with Hamlet, indecision by the Council will not work this time. It has no choice but to vote, and soon, for the preferable alternative.