This Saturday, as part of our public hearing docket, Alexandria City Council will consider whether to seek to place on the Fall ballot a referendum to change the date of City Council elections from Spring to the Fall to coincide with federal elections.
While I fully support presenting the electorate with the opportunity to decide such a fundamental question, I must ask whether this question has been properly framed and vetted, and is even ripe for consideration. Policy through referendum has been a rare route for the City of Alexandria, having only been used twice in recent history.
Whats at issue? Based on an expressed desire to increase voter turnout in local elections, the question of when to hold local elections has been discussed for some time, with several citizen bodies appointed to assess the matter over the past two decades.
Their assessments have been mixed. Some have preferred to maintain the current election schedule lest local elections and local candidates become consumed by larger and better financed state and federal elections. Others, most recently, have deferred the question to Councils determination and recommended maintaining the status quo. While others still have argued that coupling local elections with state and national elections will, in the end, ultimately result in greater numerical voter turnout.
Surprisingly, the issue of why voter turnout in local elections has been low, and what can be done to increase voter turnout outside of dramatically shifting election dates, has yet to be addressed. Just why are Alexandrians voting in such low numbers in local elections? It seem to me we should be focusing on diagnosing the problem before prescribing a cure.
There are alternative remedies. Not examined nor discussed, for example, are the potential positive impacts on voter turnout that enhanced and focused local outreach, registration and education efforts could play in bolstering voter participation during Alexandrias traditional local election cycle. In fact, the most recent elections task force did not address this WHY question.
I am not convinced that simply shifting the date of elections is the most desirable nor locally beneficial answer. Confronting multimillion dollar national election campaigns how are local candidates to compete for voter attention? While there is always some issue overlap between such campaigns, what will become of strictly local issues in the face of broader, less parochial federal questions? If reaching disaffected voters is a goal, which it should be, what has and can be done to encourage their increased electoral participation?
I believe the referendum route may be a classic example of putting the cart before the horse – of prescribing a cure before even diagnosing the problem and its causes. The question should not be cast as simply getting out the most votes, but on understanding why voters are not voting locally and what can be done to reach out and educate voters on all the candidates, on the specific issues impacting our City, and on the need to ensure continued good governance. An active and informed electorate should be the goal. This is the essence of democracy.
On a matter as fundamental as this, I strongly encourage residents to exercise their democratic right and make their opinions known.
Ludwig P. Gaines, Esq. is a member of City Council.