There has been much discussion of late about possible changes to the way Alexandria holds local elections. Everything from reintroducing a ward system to holding non-partisan elections to staggering the terms of Council members has been suggested. These are all notions with some merit, particularly the non-partisan recommendation as local issues like parks and stoplights really dont lend themselves to partisan solutions but the only suggestion that has gained any traction is the idea of moving elections for City Council from May to November.
This idea has gained so much momentum that its on the agenda for the Council session this Saturday, June 13. Some watchers of local politics have gone so far as to say that passage of the switch to November elections is a done deal. Hopefully thats not the case, as it is offensive to think that Council members have made up their minds to vote for this switch even before a public hearing has been held and Alexandrias citizens have had a chance to voice their opinions on the topic. Equally upsetting is the notion that a lame duck Council, on which three members will be stepping down from their seats July 1, would feel compelled to vote on such an important issue as one of its last significant moves.
There are valid reasons for moving local elections to November, and reasons at least as compelling to leave them where they are. Shifting City Council races to November would almost certainly increase the number of voters who participate in elections. It would also save Alexandrias government the cost of holding a separate election in May. Supporters of this position make good arguments in our letters to the editor this week.
On the other hand, May elections allow the focus to be on local issues, not national ones, and afford Alexandrians the luxury of focusing solely on what matters to our city. Having a separate local election also increases the chance that those who vote are making an intentional, informed decision rather than casting a party-line vote simply because theyve gone to the polls to vote in a presidential contest.
While there are reasonable arguments on both sides of this issue, the issue itself is largely beside the point. The relevant issue, and the one many Alexandrians are loudly raising, is that this out-going Council has no business considering this topic at all. Whats the rush? We just held our local election, and arent due for another one for three years.
Council members should keep in mind that perception matters as much as reality in politics. The perception of many Alexandrians right now is that this Council, which considered this issue last year and decided to leave the elections in May, is taking this issue up at this time either for political reasons or because some Council members are so angry at losing last month that they are rushing to change the system before leaving office. Voter turnout percentage the reason most often cited for changing the election calendar has been declining for years (there are many reasons for that, too numerous to go into here) and yet all of a sudden this change has to be voted on immediately?
Hopefully, the current City Council will defer this issue for the new Council to consider. Alexandrians spoke loud and clear in the May election: they wanted change, including a politically diverse Council. It is appropriate that this new Council be the one to consider a modification of this magnitude especially given that the current seven Council members (including Mayor Bill Euille) have already had their shot at this issue. What is a delay of one month going to matter with the next round of elections three distant years in the future? Rushing to decide something that doesnt need deciding right now would only serve to polarize and politicize a potentially divisive issue and to give the impression of political sour grapes.