By Rodger Digilio
After the last City Council and School Board election, the perennial question of voter turnout received more than the usual amount of lip service. A special commission was appointed by the mayor to investigate ways to boost the turnout for local elections. It duly reported but made no firm recommendations for change. The public did not seem upset.
Those members of City Council who were aggravated that turnout was lower then say for a Presidential election, decided to push the issue on their own. Other members were not so sure. The result has been a compromise. Council members want to ask voters going to the polls in November for the Presidential election what they think of shifting the time of local elections. No less than four questions would be on the ballot with, perhaps, a brief explanatory paragraph.
This exercise in direct democracy could be welcomed if there were a general clamor to move the elections as there was when the question of elected school boards appeared on the ballot some years ago. We have not heard that clamor. Regardless of the merits, however, we are more than a little concerned about the unintended consequences of putting this complicated measure on the ballot in a Presidential election year.
This November is very likely to produce the heaviest turnout in memory. There will be significant races on the ballot besides the President as Virginia chooses a senator to replace John Warner. Lines of voters are likely to be long. Proponents of this referendum will say that is good. But is it?
Putting a simple question on the ballot might work but putting four related questions looks to us like it will not. Will voters focus on it with the spotlight so brightly on the national and statewide races? We think not. Some will simply ignore it. Others will answer without thought. Many, however, trying to be good citizens, will stand in the voting booth for a long time trying to figure out their answers. The lines will move more slowly, much more slowly.
Council members who wish to be remembered as the ones who increased the people’s voice in local elections will, instead, be remembered as the ones who kept people standing at the polls. Alexandria will look like Florida. Our election officials will watch with horror, and, of course, take the fall for running a sloppy election.
The truth is that it does not need to happen like this. No matter what council does, the local election in May of 2009 will be held since the General Assembly will have to act on changes to the city charter. If approved, such changes would not take effect until July, 2009.
Would not a better course of action be to postpone this for a year? If the item is to be put on the ballot it could be done in November, 2009 for the election of governor. That election will still have a good turnout but will be much more manageable than this year. Council could then make their decision in plenty of time before the local elections now scheduled for May, 2012.
Council must act wisely here. They must be as good at managing the city’s affairs as our city manager and election officials. Anything else in a critical Presidential election year is unacceptable.