As election fatigue waned, an election hangover ensued when the City Council added an item to its agenda Saturday that could be the first step in changing the citys municipal elections from May to November. It has often been a contentious subject hinging on the prominence or lack thereof of civic participation.
The stable variable in the argument is the citys lacking civic engagement, at least as measured by voter turnout for local elections. The May 5 election yielded a turnout of about 15 percent of registered voters and is in sync with a steadily declining turnout since 1976, when turnout was about 41 percent, according to the Office of Voter Registration and Elections.
The specific item acted on Saturday officially considered adding a four-question referendum to the next elections ballot to survey residents on their preference. It was apparently hours away from joining Novembers ballot until the Office of Voter registration and Elections vetoed the idea based on the possibility of long lines at the polls, according to Councilman Justin Wilson.
Changing the citys election cycle has been a question of quality versus quantity since the City Council seriously sought a solution to the low (and declining) voter turnout in 1992. Back then, the Council ordered a study of the possible benefits and consequences of altering the election cycle.
Because state and national elections have a substantially higher turnout year after year, the staff committee recommended moving elections to November, among other things. The change was never enacted and voter turnout continued to fall.
But does voter turnout necessarily reflect positive civic engagement?
According to the citys adopted mission Strategic Plan, government engages the entire community as it plans for the future.
According to a memorandum from Mayor Bill Euille and Councilman Justin Wilson to the rest of the City Council, The most basic symptom of community engagement is participation in the electoral process.
The debate has many sides, but two of the starkest are a pluralist approach and a isolationist one: Some think that November elections will compel a higher awareness and therefore a higher turnout, leading to more votes, voices and a government more representative of its people. Others believe that isolating the citys elections in May keeps local issues at the forefront, untangled from state and national issues.
The strength of a non-vote can be stronger than a positive vote, said Phil Cefaratti at Saturdays public hearing. Cefaratti recently lost his bid for a City Council seat in the recent election but his party encouraged voters to plunk, or consciously cast votes for only a portion of the six possible slots. Lopsided election statistics indicated the strategy worked.
Those registered voters who chose not to vote still made an electoral choice, he said. They chose not to vote for any candidate and their voice was heard.
In 2007, the City Council ordered a study similar to the 1993 survey to address the question of voter turnout; only it had a different outcome. The staffs recommendation was to keep municipal elections in May. Meanwhile, voter turnout fell 4.4 percentage points this month when compared to the May 2006 election.
Supporters of tuning Alexandrias election cycle with the overwhelming majority of state municipalities tend to see the argument in democratically puritanical terms: November elections would increase voter turnout, period. They believe elections should be made as convenient as possible for a voter despite the voters civic participation, and worry that naysayers are trying to appeal to a smaller population than the city entails.
I dont think you game elections to gain a political outcome, Councilman Rob Krupicka said. Give voters the most convenient opportunity to participate. The only answer we know that will reliably bring out more people is November [elections].
Councilman Ludwig Gaines voted against the idea of November elections with Vice Mayor Del Pepper, both citing possible voter fatigue and confusion brought on by a multitude of names on the ballot.
The poor voters will be overwhelmed, Gaines said.
Pepper said, This is not a good thing because when we are bunched up with these other elections the issues of the city are not allowed to be aired to their fullest.
Krupicka said he does not agree with the common argument that May elections attract more informed and less transient voters that are especially interested in the city government, therefore influencing the quality of the vote.
He was unimpressed with turnout at the City Council forums and believes more voters, specifically transient and West End residents, would benefit from the convenience November elections hold by forcing candidates to reach out to constituents instead of constituents reaching out to candidates.
Its not so clear to me that spring magically creates this beautiful oasis of focus on local government, because it doesnt, Krupicka said. If you give more voters a chance to participate then I trust them to make a decision.
I dont own my seat, the public owns my seat.
Moving elections to November is the most readily available move for the Council, which does not need state interaction to do so. Other options, like staggering city elections, changing public office terms and switching to a ward system, would require amending the citys charter and the Commonwealths concurrence. In theory, the charter could be amended so that municipal elections fall in November on non-federal election years.
Euille voted to move forward with the incremental step toward November elections, though he has said that May elections are preferable. Alexandria is an anomaly in the state though, which he took into account.
The reality of it is, if the rest of the state, the rest of the nation can vote in November and have all the candidates on the ballot Im quite certain that our citizens are very bright and intelligent and can decipher through all of that.