Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: Vote ‘No’ on F.C.’s Goldilocks Referendum

The weather’s chilly and leaves and yard signs litter the grass. It must be election time.

And as always, my first point is simply get out to vote. My second point is that I hope you’ll vote to keep the Falls Church elections in May and vote “No” on the Referendum on Nov. 8.
I ran once in May and lost so I have no love lost for the “magic of May.” But I still think we should keep our elections there. Turnout is the supposed reason for wanting to change to November, but the more I’ve looked at this the more it seems to be an excuse not the reason.

If turnout were most key, why not move to even election years and synchronize with national elections that have much higher turnout than state races? Are we Goldilocks? May is too low, November in even years is too high, but November in odd years is “just right”? We’re that good at choosing who should vote?

I have two concerns. First, local issues will be overwhelmed by state issues and candidates. We’ll be at the bottom of the ballot and buried by other advertising. Wasn’t the City founded because we wanted our local concerns to be paramount for our citizens? Local issues will get lost and the cost to get those issues out there will rise as there is more competition for voters’ attention.

My other concern is partisanship and as I’ve learned over the years through my day job and political involvement, partisanship can be blunt or much more subtle and sometimes an unintended consequence. For example, as objective as the League of Women Voters is, it couldn’t stop Sen. Saslaw – an elected partisan – from actively campaigning in favor of the referendum at a “non-partisan,” objective forum. The best of intentions can be hijacked.

The current FC Democratic Committee chair, Betty Coll, says the party has “no interest” in endorsing candidates. In my opinion, Betty’s a straight shooter. But interests change. If the FCCDC didn’t want to play a partisan role in local politics, why did it endorse moving the date? Again we have Goldilocks. Moving the date is just right, but endorsing candidates would be too much. Saying nothing would be too little?

Some say parties could endorse in May. Not really. Why would they go to the trouble? For November, the machinery’s already moving so adding the local contest would be at zero incremental effort. Partisanship is increasing not decreasing in the country and the state. Do we really think we’re immune to larger changes like that?

Let’s look at Manassas Park that changed to November. The LWV had Bryan Polk, Vice Mayor, speak, who had championed the change. Bottom line? His presentation said bluntly, “If I had it to do over again, I would have stayed with May elections.” A buyer’s remorse we need not suffer.

Some say that people are surprised at having elections in May. When I ran for Council I found no one who didn’t know we had elections. But even if people were surprised at May elections, why do you think they wouldn’t be surprised to find local issues on the ballot in November? Again, to quote Polk, “Undervote is real. Concern about [an] ‘informed vote’ for local candidates is real.”

Forty percent of the City’s population turns over every five years. We’re in a transient area. Is anyone really surprised that we don’t have a laser focus on local issues among that 40%? Everyone has the right to vote in May and many choose not to. Yet we’re arrogantly saying, “No, that’s the wrong choice.” I agree it’s wrong, but it’s their choice.
What’s the failsafe people seem to cling to stop partisanship in November? That the Council can enact a Charter change to save us from partisanship. I hoped so, too, when I spoke at Council meetings and even gave such language from another Virginia jurisdiction. But that’s a pipe dream. Can we keep local candidates from having a “D” or “R” next to their name on the ballot? Most likely. But our power ends there.

Can we stop parties from marking sample ballots with local preferences? No. Can we keep someone from campaigning for a partisan and a local independent at the same time? No. Can we keep campaign literature from mixing local and partisan candidates and issues? No. Can we stop joint campaign appearances by partisans and local candidates? No. In November, that’s the problem. Not in May.

To me these are simple freedom of speech issues. We can “tsk, tsk” and say they shouldn’t happen, but they can and will and there’s nothing we can do except vote “No” on Nov. 8. Keep our local elections local. Keep our non-partisan elections non-partisan. Keep our elections in May.


John D. Lawrence ran for Falls Church City Council in May 2010 and manages Congressional Affairs for the International Foundation for Electoral Systems.