Monday, December 14, 2009

Falls Church Considers Changing Local Election Date

There are a few jurisdictions in Northern Virginia that have their local elections held in May instead of the traditional election date of November. In races that often don't receive very much media attention to begin with, having the election in May frequently leads to low voter turnout. Furthermore, having addition election days throughout the year can add some extra costs to the local community which is something that many leaders are looking at during these tough financial times.

As the Washington Post points out, those facts are now being taken under consideration as one of those jurisdictions, the City of Falls Church, is now in the middle of a debate about whether or not the elections should be moved from May to November. The City Attorney John Foster, for instance, said that this move could save Falls Church $18,000. On top of that, both supporters and opponents of the move are drawing attention to the fact that moving the election to November will get more people involved in the election as voters will already be heading to the polls to cast their ballots in Congressional races. Supporters point out that it’s a good thing to have more Falls Church residents letting their voice be heard in regards to who represents them on the City Council. Opponents, on the other hand, argue that these voters might not be as knowledgeable about the local issues. The implication of this, of course, is that adding more voters to the process will result in the City Council being filled with members who don’t actually represent the community.

I tend to agree with the supporters of moving the election to November because having more voters involved is a good thing and I strongly disagree with those who imply that adding more voters to the process is a bad thing. More voters casting ballots for City Council very well might result in people who haven’t closely followed the work the Council’s done, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be able to decide who represents them. After all, if the City Council wants to represent the entire City of Falls Church, then they should be in favor of setting up a process that would encourage as many voters as possible to take part in the process.

Where this becomes somewhat complicated is how to go about making the change. There are some members of the Council who are supposed to face re-election in May. This ultimately means that immediately moving the election to November would extend their terms without giving the voters a say in whether or not they should get that extension. The added length to their terms would somewhat discount of the major points in moving the election date (giving voters more of a say in who serves on the Council). This gets further complicated by the fact that the Council will be making some budget decisions during tough economic times right before the May elections. Some activists believe this is therefore just an attempt of the Council members to add a little distance between the budget debate and election day.

There is a compromise in this, however, that would result in financial savings, increased voter participation, and wouldn’t directly benefit sitting Council members. The change in voting date could be implemented for future elections, but keep the 2010 elections in May. This would help to ensure that Council members wouldn’t be voting for the move just because it benefits their own political fate and would also mean that nobody would get their term extended without the consent of the voting public.

No matter what happens, the decision will have to be made very quickly and it appears as though some decisions in the process might be made as soon as tonight’s City Council meeting.

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