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Will Justice Department Mind F.C.’s Undo of November Election Date?

councilpicCity Council Set to Reverse Plan for More Voters

Dismissing any prospective objection from the U.S. Department of Justice as “speculation,” and with the notion of a “disenfranchisement of voters” called “a pure straw man and red herring,” by the mayor, five members of the Falls Church City Council moved this Monday to place two items on next Tuesday’s business meeting agenda aimed at undoing an action taken earlier this year to increase voter turnout in the City’s municipal elections.

City Council Set to Reverse Plan for More Voters

Dismissing any prospective objection from the U.S. Department of Justice as “speculation,” and with the notion of a “disenfranchisement of voters” called “a pure straw man and red herring,” by the mayor, five members of the Falls Church City Council moved this Monday to place two items on next Tuesday’s business meeting agenda aimed at undoing an action taken earlier this year to increase voter turnout in the City’s municipal elections.

Thus, the newly-constituted City Council, with three new members added in July, appears destined to reverse the action of its predecessor Council that voted 5-2 in January to shift the date of City elections from May to November.

This will be done Tuesday despite clear evidence that fewer Falls Church citizens will participate in the elections if they are moved back again to May. Records from the Registrar of Voters Office in Falls Church establishes that turnout has, on average, been almost twice as high in November elections as in May ones.

Further, one of Falls Church’s representatives in the state legislature, State Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple, confirmed to the News-Press in an interview yesterday that it was the intent of 2001 legislation that permitted localities to move election dates from May to November to bring more people to the polls.

councilpic

AT ITS WORK SESSION Monday, a five-member majority on the Falls Church City Council decided to choose from between three alternative resolutions calling for a public referendum on changing the date of local elections. They will be considered at this Monday night’s business meeting. (Photo: News-Press)

“There was concern for encouraging higher voter turnouts, since all the evidence showed turnouts were far lower in May elections than November,” Whipple said she recalled. “There was also concern of the cost of conducting two elections in one year, that impacted local budgets.”

When the previous City Council voted, as provided under Virginia law, to switch the City’s elections to November, the U.S. Department of Justice gave it a stamp of approval.

Virginia is one of only seven states in the U.S. where the Justice Department must review any changes to the election process, due to the state’s long history of discrimination, especially in denying fully enfranchised voting rights to minorities.

So now, were the City of Falls Church to revert to May elections, the Justice Department would have to review that decision, and determine that it was OK, under its mandate, to allow a predominantly white community to act to restrict voter turnout.

Not all are convinced it will rubber stamp that move.

This coming Monday the Council will consider approving one of three proposed resolutions mandating a public referendum on the election date.

The first calls for a referendum on Nov. 2, 2011 which, if a November date is approved, would call for November elections to commence in Nov. 2013.

The second calls for a referendum on April 5, 2011, which if November is approved would call for November elections beginning Nov. 2011.

The third calls for a referendum on Nov. 1, 2011, which is November is approved would call for November elections to begin in Nov. 2012.

Then there will a vote on a first reading of an ordinance to repeal the section of the City code on “November Election of Council Members.”

The resolution approach was rejected by the Council last January because it was believed such a special referendum would, again, be restricted in its voter participation to a small core of community activists.

The argument was made by the earlier Council, led by then-Mayor Robin Gardner, that the small group of activists were fighting against relinquishing the relative advantage they retain with small voter turnouts. That concern, combined with the clear permission granted by state law for a governing body to make the decision, resulted in the 5-2 vote to change the date.

However, in May, three of the five Councilmen who voted to move the election left the Council, some not seeking re-election and others losing in the election. Dan Maller, Dan Sze and Hal Lippman, all of whom had voted to change the date, were removed and all three candidates replacing them, combined with Mayor Nader Baroukh and Vice Mayor David Snyder, all now advocate an undoing of the earlier Council action.

At this Monday’s work session, only Gardner from the previous Council was present who’d voted to change the date of City elections from May to November, as Councilman Lawrence Webb was absent.

Gardner said her concern was for how the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) would look upon a move to undo a decision designed to enfranchise more voters, especially after the DOJ OKd the City’s decision to switch from May to November elections last spring. She reminded the Council that Virginia is one of only seven states, all in the south, where any move to change anything about an election at any level in the state is subject to DOJ scrutiny, given the long history of racially-influenced efforts to disenfranchise voters in the state.

While Vice Mayor Snyder said he’d be willing to “take my chances” with the DOJ, Baroukh lashed out at the notion of disenfranchisement, calling is “a pure straw man and red herring,” and Snyder added, “It is an issue of no substance.”

Gardner said that if the City moves the election date back to May, it will have some explaining to do to the DOJ as to why the move does not disenfranchise minority voters in the City, especially when the record shows that turnouts of voters drop from 50 percent, on average, to 30 percent depending on whether they are in November or May.

“How are we going to show the DOJ that going from higher to lower turnout election dates” can be OK with them, she asked, noting that the City has a “very poor record” of getting minorities to the polls, lacking election materials printed in Spanish or Vietnamese, as examples. She added, “We’re letting down a whole other group of constituents by doing this.”

Snyder said that the Council’s vote in January to switch from May to November elections was “a usurpation of the rights of the people,” even though, as Gardner pointed out, it was authorized by the Virginia state code and 32 other jurisdictions in Virginia have done it without any switching back.

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