Though the numbers were disappointingly small, Alexandrians unmistakably voted for change in Tuesdays elections. With three of six seats changing hands, City Council will have a new look when it is sworn in on July 1. Republican Frank Fannon and Independent Alicia Hughes will join Democrat Kerry Donley, who is returning to elected office after a six-year hiatus, as the three new members on Council.
Fannon, the first Republican on Council in six years, and Hughes should bring fresh ideas and much-needed critical voices to debate on city issues. Both made budget-cutting and spending restraint key themes in their campaigns. Donley returns, not to the mayors chair he most recently occupied, but as vice mayor by virtue of garnering the most votes in the election.
With Fannon, Donley, holdovers Rob Krupicka and Mayor Bill Euille, all local businessmen, we expect the new Council to aggressively pursue business development for the city. We urge the entire Council to look for ways to streamline and simplify the process for new businesses to open in Alexandria, so that our fair city can shed its reputation as a difficult place to set up shop.
We also congratulate Council incumbents Del Pepper and Paul Smedberg, who were re-elected to their ninth and third terms, respectively, and School Board newcomers Mimi Carter and Helen Morris. Carter and Morris, along with incumbent Sheryl Gorsuch, won in District A, the only competitive School Board race in the city.
We would be remiss in not recognizing those who fell just short of election. We would like to thank Tim Lovain in particular for his able service on Council these past three years. Incumbent Justin Wilson, Republican Phil Cefaratti and Independent Rich Williamson all also waged good campaigns for Council, as did Scott Newsham, an incumbent who narrowly lost his School Board re-election bid, and School Board challenger Bill Campbell. We hope they all continue to seek ways to serve the community.
The voting returns from Tuesdays election reveal some interesting twists. The most encouraging result was the non-partisan nature of the voting. The vote was spread amazingly evenly among the top eight candidates, with only 976 votes separating leading vote-getter Donley from Wilson, who finished eighth. That means a lot of people cast ballots for both Democrats and Republicans in this election, a refreshing result that we hope becomes a trend.
On the negative side, only 14,380 Alexandrians cast votes in this election, which is a scant 15.3 percent of registered voters. The vote total was down from 2006 in both the actual number of voters and as a percentage, and way down from the 2003 election, when 20,221 citizens cast ballots fully 27 percent of registered voters.
There are several likely explanations for this decline in voter turnout. The first is simply a lack of competitive races. Turnout was high in 2003 because Alexandria had a hotly contested mayoral race between Democrat Bill Euille the eventual winner and long-time Republican standard-bearer Bill Cleveland. Both were jousting to succeed Donley, and anticipation was high as Alexandria was assured of electing its first African American mayor. This year, the lack of a challenger for Mayor Euille, along with predominantly uncontested School Board races, made this a rather ho hum election in the eyes of many.
Second, while voting was down almost 5 percentage points, in real numbers the decline was less than a thousand voters. This suggests that Alexandria has many new voters added to the rolls in the past three years as a result of voter registration drives related to the presidential contest. Many of these new voters are probably transient and not terribly engaged in local politics. This is borne out by looking at turnout by voting precinct. Voter turnout in this election was actually high in parts of the city: George Mason, Blessed Sacrament and Maury were all near 30 percent. Several West End precincts, however, had abysmal rates, led by the NoVa Arts Center with an appalling 3.6 percent (where 160 out of 4,051 registered voters participated.)
In sum, Alexandria has much to celebrate and also much to ponder in the aftermath of Tuesdays election. Citizens spoke loudly for change and have elected a strong and diverse Council. Conversely, too few Alexandrians participated in the contest and that is troubling. We think citizens need to look for ways to increase voter turnout. Competitive races for all offices would be a first step. Other ideas to consider include making local elections non-partisan, holding November elections and re-introducing a ward system for voting.