On January 11, 2010, a bare majority of the then-City Council passed an ordinance changing the date of our municipal elections, for both the Council and the School Board, from every two years in May of even-numbered years to every two years in November of odd-numbered years.
This was a rushed and ill-considered action taken without adequate study over the objections of many Falls Church citizens. The ordinance is a mistake that should be corrected by repeal, leaving our local elections to be held in May, as they are now, and then, if appropriate, the process could be started over.
Historically, more voters have turned out in November than in May. However, most voters in May are likely to be informed and knowledgeable about local issues and candidates, whereas many of the additional voters gained by moving the elections to November would come out to vote on state and national issues and candidates and are less likely to be informed and knowledgeable about local issues and candidates. So it must be asked whether moving local elections to November just to increase turnout would be an improvement over the current situation. Our local elections are often decided by very close vote margins. Do we want our City Council and School Board members to be elected by voters who are knowledgeable about local issues and candidates, or by those who, whether they are too busy or just don’t care, are not?
The January 2010 ordinance set the stage for partisan, party-nominated City Council and School Board candidates. It is likely that, in a November election, candidates will be identified with one party or the other because November elections are by their nature partisan and it is too easy, for example, to merely add the names of local candidates to a “Sample Ballot” distributed by party workers at the polls. Laws or rules aimed at prohibiting this type of activity would likely run afoul of constitutional provisions. Many voters, therefore, especially the “new” November voters who are less informed and thus highly susceptible to the influence of party politics, will base their decisions about local candidates solely on party affiliation. Do we want the members of our City Council and School Board to be chosen on the basis of partisan politics? Politicization would also substantially diminish the pool of qualified candidates because of the Hatch Act.
Access to Information
In a November election, local issues and candidates will be overwhelmed by information and media coverage of state and national issues and candidates. This will make it more difficult for voters to become knowledgeable about local issues and candidates and to give them careful and thoughtful consideration.
Legality and Conflict With City Charter
The January 2010 ordinance is a simple, straightforward legislative act. Therefore, the legislative body that enacted it has the inherent authority to amend or repeal it. The fact that it was enacted under the authority of a state statute does not make it a state statute or give it the weight of a state statute. Indeed, to the contrary, the ordinance is in conflict with the City Charter, Section 3.01 of which provides for municipal elections to be held in May. Therefore, it can be argued that the ordinance is invalid because the City Charter, since it was approved by the General Assembly and the ordinance was not, takes precedence. Moreover, Section 24.2-222-1, the state statute pursuant to which the ordinance was passed, is an exception to the state statute (Section 24.2-222) which provides that municipal elections must be held in May, and is titled “Alternative election of mayor and council….” (Emphasis added.) The City Council, therefore, can at any time choose which date of election to adopt, May or November.
Do we want the members of our City Council and School Board to be chosen on the basis of partisan politics?
The current Council should promptly correct the former Council’s hasty and ill-advised action of January 2010 by repealing the ordinance and leaving the municipal elections in May, as is currently provided by the City Charter. Then, if the issue is deemed worthy of further consideration, the Council should collect sufficient information and data regarding the pros and cons of changing the date of local elections, including asking the League of Women Voters to update its 2001 study. At that point, with the issue fully studied and the citizens and the Council adequately informed, it would be appropriate for the Council, if it is so inclined, to submit the matter to the voters pursuant to Section 4.12 of the Charter for an advisory referendum. While repeal of the January 2010 ordinance may not be an issue as complex as the City’s financial viability, or economic development, it is no less urgent and important, for it is vital to the independence and integrity of the governing process itself.