Plenty of candidate supporters and champions of ballot initiatives had something to celebrate on Election Day, but for General Registrar David B. Bjerke’s staff, the cause for celebration was the sheer number of City of Falls Church residents who cast their votes that day.
The City was recognized by the Virginia Electoral Board Association for its state-topping 82.8 percent turnout in the 2008 presidential election, and with this year’s turnout over 87 percent, Bjerke hopes that back-to-back accolades will be earned.
“It would be really exciting to be able to claim that in consecutive presidential elections and break our own record,” Bjerke said, adding that the final determination has not yet been made as results are yet to be finalized.
Of the City’s 8,381 total active registered voters on the day, 7,298 voters cast ballots on Nov. 6. Bjerke said that the City typically has a higher voter turnout percentage than other jurisdictions even in primary or municipal elections. He attributes the high turnout to the education and income level of the City’s residents.
“There is a statistically significant correlation between voter turnout and both education level and income level,” Bjerke said. “The higher a voter’s education level or the higher a voter’s income level, the more likely that voter registers to vote and votes. The City of Falls Church has both higher than average education levels and higher than average income levels.”
Despite the high likelihood of Little City citizens casting their ballots, the impact of Hurricane Sandy and the recent voting ward reconfiguration and reduction cast some uncertainty on the voting process.
Hurricane Sandy left many City residents without power and government offices closed. Bjerke’s staff aren’t strangers to Election Day emergency situations – he recalled the big earthquake that occurred during a primary last year and a fire evacuation at a polling place last November – but they plan for emergency management and are prepared to deal with a variety of problems, armed with tools like extra batteries, portable generators and paper ballots in the case of power outages.
On the Saturday before the superstorm, 10 days before Election Day, 253 citizens cast in-person absentee ballots, nearly 12 percent of the 2,187 who cast early ballots overall, a high turnout which Bjerke attributes to the looming threat of Sandy.
“We were concerned about keeping in-person absentee voting open during the hurricane. I was prepared to keep the hours open even with the City closing City Hall,” Bjerke said. “Eventually most government services and businesses were closed but people were coming out to vote anyway.” For the sake of public safety, in-person absentee voting was closed at noon on the Monday when the worst of the storm’s impact was forecast. In the four hours the office was open that day, an abnormally high 55 ballots were cast.
The State Board of Elections allowed for in-person absentee voting hours to be extended at the City’s Office of Voter Registration and Elections so that those unable to vote on Election Day would have ample opportunity to cast their ballots despite the storm’s disruptions. The office stayed open for extra hours from the Wednesday following the storm to the Saturday before the election.
“None of those nights had a heavy turnout of voters compared to the normal hours, but it was clearly worth it to those voters who were able to make it,” Bjerke said.
Those who didn’t vote early took part in the City’s first presidential election after its recent move to reduce polling places in Falls Church from five to three. In a measure approved by City Council late last year and first practiced in the May municipal election, two of the City’s five voting wards were eliminated and citizens were redistributed into the remaining three wards, voting at Thomas Jefferson Elementary School, Oakwood Apartments, or the Falls Church Community Center.
In an interview with Bjerke this summer, he said the November presidential election would be “the big show,” when voter turnout would be at its peak and thus a test of the new voter distribution.
“The Electoral Board and I continue to realize the benefits of the ward reconfiguration,” Bjerke said. “In our view of election management, it is a complete success.”
His staff received no reports of voters going to their old polling places and being unable to get to the proper polling place, and no formal complaints were made following the election.
While the presidential election would for some be their first time voting at a new polling place, Bjerke said that the municipal and primary elections that preceded the Nov. 6 election helped to familiarize voters with the change.
“Repetition is our greatest ally,” Bjerke said.
The impact of the storm and the ward reduction weren’t Bjerke’s only election-season concerns. On a more personal level the registrar’s second child was expected a mere two days after Election Day, and an early arrival could have caused problems for a father tasked with overseeing City elections.
“Thankfully, this was my second child and I have an understanding wife. We both knew that no matter what, I would be working the election all through October and up until Election Day and canvass the day after,” Bjerke said. “My wife, Annika, gave me a pass for this election considering it is the most important day of the four year cycle.”
Bjerke’s daughter, Ashley, was born at 12:37 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 9, at 7 pounds and 11 ounces and 20.5 inches.
“She was a good girl and waited a whole extra day,” Bjerke said.