Led by assertions that any prospective reaction from the U.S. Department of Justice is simply “speculation,” and that the notion of a “disenfranchisement of voters” associated with changing back the date of Falls Church City elections from a November date with historically far higher voter turnouts to May, when they are historically much lower, is a “pure straw man and red herring,” five members of the Falls Church City Council determined at a work session tonight to place a resolution on next week’s formal agenda calling for a referendum on the date of the election, and for first reading of an ordinance to repeal the election date switch an earlier Council established last January.
There was, at tonight’s session, only one member of the previous Council present who voted to change the date of City elections from May to November, former Mayor Robin Gardner. She stood her ground tonight against all the other members present (Lawrence Webb was absent) who insisted on undoing last January’s decision, including Mayor Baroukh and Vice Mayor David Snyder, who were in the minority when the 4-3 vote to move the date was taken.
Gardner said her concern was for how the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) would look upon a move to undo a decision designed to enfranchise more voters, especially after the DOJ OK’d the City’s decision to switch from May to November elections last spring. She reminded the Council that Virginia is one of only seven states, all in the south, where any move to change anything about an election at any level in the state is subject to DOJ scrutiny, given the long history of racially-influenced efforts to disenfranchise voters in the state.
While Vice Mayor Snyder said he’d be willing to “take my chances” with the DOJ, Baroukh lashed out at the notion of disenfranchisement, calling is “a pure straw man and red herring,” and Snyder added, “It is an issue of no substance.”
Gardner said that if the City moves the election date back to May, it will have some explaining to do to the DOJ as to why the move does not disenfranchise minority voters in the City, especially when the record shows that turnouts of voters drop from 50 percent, on average, to 30 percent between whether they are in November or May. “How are we going to show the DOJ that going from higher to lower turnout election dates” can be OK with them, she asked, noting that the City has a “very poor record” of getting minorities to the polls, lacking election materials printed in Spanish or Vietnamese, as examples. She added, “We’re letting down a whole other group of constituents by doing this.”
Snyder said that the Council’s vote in January to switch from May to November elections was “a usurption of the rights of the people,” even though, as Gardner pointed out, it was authorized by the Virginia state code and 32 other jurisdictions in Virginia have done it without any switching back.