I was sitting in a City Council work session on Monday and we started to talk about the election date issue. For those of you not following this hotly debated topic, last January, the City Council voted to move our local elections from May to November in order to increase voter turnout. We followed the law as stated by the Commonwealth of Virginia which allowed Council to do this without public referendum. The decision was made after public hearings and citizen input on both sides of the issue. The City Council felt a need to do this to make sure that more citizens were heard at the ballot box.
Now, under a new City Council, we are revisiting the issue. As the debate went on at the work session this week, I had the eerie feeling that I was entering the movie “Meatballs.” Do you remember that movie? The one with Bill Murray at a summer camp where there is a competition with a neighboring camp? You know, the underdog camp that is creative, working together, and trying to beat the camp with all of the rich, athletic, snobby kids? The line that sticks in my head is “it just doesn’t matter.” Over and over again. Well, that is exactly how I felt whenever I presented my side of an argument to the majority of Council who, it seems, were unwilling to listen to what is now the minority voice on Council.
So, sarcastically, I would like to think that I am the Bill Murray character in this dialogue. Here’s how it went:
The City Council in January did what it was elected to do and made the decision to move the election based on our State assembly approving us to make the decision? It just doesn’t matter!
More people vote in November than May and we have the statistics to prove it? It just doesn’t matter!
The current City Council is willing to turn its back on the reasons for the policy decision made in January and turn back the clock.
The Justice Department would have to review this whole process again (possibly a few times) after already doing their research regarding voter turnout and minority voting? It just doesn’t matter!
One of the key indicators for the Justice Department to allow for us to change our election date is based on civil rights issues and minority turn out for elections, and we would need to prove that holding elections in May instead of November would not affect the turnout? It just doesn’t matter!
It cost more to have elections in May and we are in a fiscal crisis trying to save money? It just doesn’t matter!
More people participating in the electoral process makes for better government? It just doesn’t matter!
Thirty-two other communities have moved their elections from May to November since 2000 and none have moved back? It just doesn’t matter!
Some people believe elections in May are better because that is when “people that really care about the City and the issues turn out to vote,” thus creating a sort of litmus test for our elections and who should vote? It just doesn’t matter!
Some people believe that by moving the elections to November they will become partisan, but it has been proven in other communities that it just isn’t the case? It just doesn’t matter!
But, of course, all of this does matter. The current City Council is willing to turn its back on the reasons for the policy decision made in January and turn back the clock, reverse the decision, and hold a referendum in November 2011 (or, if some have their way, earlier than that) so the citizens can decide if they prefer a May election or a November one. I am all for citizen participation (hence my desire to have elections in November when more people turn out to vote) but I also recognize that you, the citizens, elect us to make policy decisions in the best interest of the community at large. This community includes the silent majority – those people who care deeply about their community but don’t speak up unless they see that something terrible is happening and feel the need to talk to Council about it.
Keep in mind, though, that just because the City Council chooses to reverse the previous Council’s decision regarding moving the election does NOT make it so. The Justice Department still needs to approve it, and that means that we as a community need to prove that we are not disenfranchising voters by moving elections from a historically higher turnout date of November to a historically lower turnout date of May. And yes, that will cost the City money.
So, unlike the Meatball movie, this discussion DOES matter. Voter turnout in local elections matters. Enfranchisement of citizens in the community matters. So does the opinion of the Justice Department.
The issue is before Council on October 12.
Robin Gardner is a member of the Falls Church City Council and former mayor of the City of F.C.