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Moving Municipal Elections to November Is a Good Decision

On January 21, the Virginia Senate passed SB 1157 [1], a bill that would move traditional municipal elections from May to November. The bill, introduced by Sen. Lionell Spruill (D-Chesapeake), was passed after Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, a Democrat, broke a 19-19 tie. [2]

Sen. Amanda Chase (R-Chesterfield) voted with all 18 Democrats to create the tie. Sen Jennifer Boysko (D-Fairfax) did not vote, and with Senator Ben Chafin (R-Washington County) passing away [3] from COVID-19 complications earlier this year, it set up the 19-19 tie along party lines.

According to the Virginia Department of Elections, 16 cities and more than 100 towns would be affected.

The bill now heads to the House of Delegates where, hopefully, it will pass.

There are many reasons why moving municipal elections to November makes sense and it should not be a partisan issue.

First, moving the elections is fiscally responsible. Republicans like to make arguments regarding the government saving money and being efficient. This bill does just that. According to the Estimate of Local Fiscal Impact [4] for SB 1157 done by the Division of Legislative Services [5], the “legislative branch agency created statutorily by the General Assembly to provide nonpartisan legal and general research services to members of the General Assembly and its standing committees in the House of Delegates and Senate of Virginia” would save localities anywhere from $2,400 to $200,000.

According to the impact statements, here are some of the savings for localities.

City of Norfolk ($100,000 – $200,000): The City of Norfolk would see a savings of about $100,000-$200,000 from eliminating May elections for municipal elections. With May elections cut, cost savings would come in the form of ballots, mail in, postage, worker pay, overtime, and location costs.

Fairfax County ($2,400): The County estimates a cost of $2,400 for printing the ballots for one of the towns within the County’s borders. The expenses associated with May elections are currently reimbursed.

The town of Ashland in Hanover County, while opposed to the move due to partisanship, would save money. According to the Assistant Town Manager Matt Reynal, the cost of a May election “was $3,694 between payment to Hanover County for administration and a few local expenses.”

Furthermore, Teri Smithson, General Registrar/Director of Elections for Hanover County, said when current elections are held in May 2022 that she is forecasting the cost “will be over $11k due to the opening of the Early Voting Center.”  The expanded early voting opportunities is a cost that many towns have not had to pay before, thus increasing costs.

Yes, there will be some places that will have to spend money to educate the electorate about the changes, such as the town of Marion and their $25,000 estimate.

According to Bill Rush, Marion Town Manager, the “Director of Economic Development actually formulated estimation of costs associated with the change from May to November elections, which include marketing, advertising, and the necessary public information campaign to change this long-standing tradition. This includes staff time, printing, traditional and social media marketing, and traditional advertising.”

First, while some of the expense up front is large, in the end it’s a cost savings. Being fiscally responsible is something that Republicans fight for and a reason to support this bill.

Secondly, moving the elections to November will make it easier for people to take part in the democratic process.

In Blacksburg Town Council elections the average voter turnout has gone up since moving municipal elections from May to November. [6] Since 2009 turnout has averaged 15,367, more than double the 6,471 between 2000 and 2008 when elections happened in May during even-numbered years.

Additionally, according to the fiscal impact statement, when Blacksburg “shifted our elections from May to November in 2011 … it was an actual savings to the Town to be combined with the County elections in November. Previously we would pay $5,000 to $11,000 an election.” That’s money that could be used for other areas to serve the people.

Opponents of the bill (towns of Ashland and Marion) argue that moving the elections from May to November would politicize local politics. These arguments, while worthy, should note that in our current environment hyper partisanship is a norm that has already infected local politics.

In Henrico County, where I reside, we have elections for our Board of Supervisors in November, like many other localities. Both the Henrico Democratic and Republican Committees pass out sample ballots with their preferred candidates on them, something that would still happen if the elections were held in May. In this day in age with social media one could argue that  local elections in May would become more partisan because only the hard core party members would show up and vote.

Finally, voting should be easy and elections open to all people. In Virginia we have elections every year and sometimes twice a year (primaries and general elections). It should be the goal of everyone to have as many people participate in elections as possible. November elections have a much higher turnout than those in May. Localities and candidates must embrace a higher turnout in November and support SB 1157.