12/01/10: Getting lost in the election shuffle

This op-ed appeared in The Virginian-Pilot on the date shown.

PORTSMOUTH is the latest Hampton Roads locality to pursue moving its local elections from May to November. The state code has provided for such an option since 2000. The combination of the state’s elimination of funding for May elections — a consequence of the 2009 budget cuts — and higher voter turnout in November makes the decision appear to be a no-brainer, and 37 localities across Virginia have made the switch. Even so, I’m not convinced it’s a good move.

May elections are a throwback to the Byrd machine’s control of Virginia politics. The key was to limit the number of voters participating. In his 1949 book, “Southern Politics in State and Nation,” V. O. Key writes, “A landslide election would have 7 percent of the potential electorate voting for candidates supported by Byrd, and 4 percent voting for the opposition … a total of less than 15 percent of theoretically-possible voters actually participating in the process.”

Byrd’s efforts were helped by a constitution designed to disenfranchise voters. The 1902 constitution established a poll tax, the result being that the number of people who voted in 1905 was 50 percent of those who had voted in 1901. In 1940, only 10 percent of Virginians over age 21 were voting. The 1961 gubernatorial election saw just 17 percent of the voting-age population cast ballots.

Although the constitution was rewritten in 1971 and the poll tax deemed unconstitutional in 1966, May elections still have lower participation when compared to those held in November. About 23 percent of Norfolk’s registered voters cast ballots this past May, while Chesapeake had about 17 percent and Portsmouth had about 16 percent. Weeks ago, the turnout was about 39 percent in Norfolk, and about 40 percent and 43 percent in Chesapeake and Portsmouth, respectively.

If the only goal is to increase the number of votes cast, we should not only move local elections to November but also move the gubernatorial elections from odd years to even years, when the turnout is even higher. In 2008, 74 percent of the state’s registered voters cast ballots; in 2004, it was 71 percent. By comparison, the gubernatorial election in 2009 saw a 41 percent turnout, and the 2005 election saw 45 percent.

And while we’re at it, move the General Assembly races from odd years to even years, too. In 2007, with only those races on the ballot, turnout statewide was just over 30 percent, while the 2006 federal races had turnout of almost 53 percent.

And this is after significant resources are invested each cycle to try to get those so-called federal voters to the polls.

I doubt anyone in Richmond would seriously consider moving those elections. Opponents would argue that state issues would get lost in the noise of the federal campaigns.

Yet localities are willing to let local issues get lost in them. We cast our ballots based on our knowledge of what the candidates say they will do or have done for our cities. But that is hard to do when the races further up the ballot get all the attention, via the ads and mail the candidates purchase or by way of media coverage the candidates earn.

Candidates in local races downballot from higher profile federal races simply have a hard time being heard.

And what of the quality of candidates who have to run in such races? Are we getting the best and the brightest among us? Perhaps not.

November contests at the local level require a lot more resources than those in May precisely at a time when resources — money and people — are more difficult to obtain. Challengers already face an uphill battle raising money because donors tend to support incumbents. Volunteers tend to prefer to work on higher profile races.

The result is that the pool of candidates is limited, primarily to those with money or access to money, something we already have enough of at the federal level. A candidate can have the very best ideas of how to serve our city but never be heard because he can’t raise enough money to buy TV ads or send mail or have enough volunteers to knock on doors or drop off literature.

If it’s all about getting bodies to the polls, then move the elections. But if it is about having an informed electorate choose the best representative, then keeping local elections in May is the way to go.