09/04/16: Lower your eyes on November’s ballot

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

DESPITE ALL THE NOISE from the presidential contest, there will be other items on the ballot in November. Ten of our 11 congressional districts have contested races. All Virginia voters will be weighing in on two proposed constitutional amendments. In many localities, voters will be voting on local issues and candidates.

The list of local candidates provided on the Virginia Department of Elections website runs 187 pages. Hundreds have offered themselves for service to their communities, including in Portsmouth, Suffolk and Virginia Beach.

Since Portsmouth uses an at-large system to elect its local officials, all voters in Portsmouth will elect a mayor from a field of six candidates, three members of City Council from a pool of 10, and five school board members out of eight contenders.

In Suffolk, there will be five candidates on the ballot for mayor, who is elected at-large. All three of its City Council borough seats up for election are contested this year. In each of the three borough seats for school board, an incumbent is running unopposed.

Virginia Beach voters will choose from four candidates for mayor. Three of its district City Council seats – Kempsville, Rose Hall and At Large – have at least two candidates. The incumbent in the fourth – Centreville – is unopposed. Five seats for the school board will be on the ballot as well, with only the Kempsville seat uncontested. Although candidates run by district, they are all elected at-large.

Unlike those on the ballot above them, the Hampton Roads candidates for local office sport the Independent label for party affiliation. Just as Virginians do not register by party, most candidates for local office across the state are not identified by party.

In these days of hyperpartisanship, the old Virginia Way of having local candidates file without party labels may seem a little strange. (Of course, much of Virginia’s politics may seem a little strange to those who are unfamiliar. But that’s a topic for another day.) But without party labels, voters actually have to know something about the candidates when they show up on Election Day.

And this is why I dislike local elections in November, particularly in November of presidential election years.

The ability of a candidate to raise his or her name identification – critical at every level but especially so at the local level – is directly tied to funds raised. November local elections means the big money floats to the top – to the races above, and to incumbents. Without money, the candidates can’t buy literature to distribute, signs to display or Facebook ads.

Just knock on doors, some say. OK – but where will the candidates get volunteers to help them? It’s more prestigious to volunteer for a presidential or congressional campaign.

And don’t forget: All of these local offices are part-time jobs. The candidates have to have another source of income. Any candidate still working has to find the time to be at civic league meetings and neighborhood events, every candidate forum, and to take care of themselves.

It does them – and us – a disservice to have to run for office in November. Local issues get lost. Voters take shortcuts in deciding for whom to cast their vote, with an over-reliance on candidate endorsements. And far too many just leave that part of the ballot blank.

Government closest to us is the most important – and you can’t get any closer than those in local government. Unfortunately, November local elections are probably here to stay – and likely to expand to other localities.

Monday is Labor Day, the traditional start of the campaign season. How about we make it the start of our personal campaigns to learn about the local candidates? Head over to the Virginia Department of Elections website and click on the “What’s on your Ballot” link. There you will find a list of candidates and issues. Then start searching for information about them.

The candidates – our neighbors and friends – will no doubt appreciate your efforts.