The City Council last week could not reach a consensus or even a supermajority on proposed changes to the citys election process that have been discussed since this summers out-going governing body succeeded in moving City Council and School Board elections from May to November. Therefore, no imminent amendment to the city charter is likely.
Despite a stated goal to increase voter turnout, many perceived the move by the all-Democrat body as a partisan dine-and-dash that would favor Democrats by inducing party-line votes in elections coinciding with presidential contests. The powers that be should take pains to prove that notion wrong.
A bright spot for those opposing November elections included the prospect of nuances compromises like extending terms from three years to four, holding elections in odd-numbered years to avoid falling on national election dates and the possibility of staggered terms electing half of the citys officials at a time so that the governing bodies would change every two years. Though Council members voted 4 to 3 against an amendment push in the General Assembly, this debate cannot end there.
The votes stray from party lines and individual opinions on Council comprise a Venn diagram of sentiments overlapping at points and divisive at others which is a sign of positive discourse. But the only general consensus on Council is that there is no general consensus.
Councilwoman Alicia Hughes put forth a commitment to officially propose a referendum on the issue to let voters decide. This approach should be supported and enacted in November 2011 unobstructed by national Congressional elections to put to rest once and for all the question of what the electorate prefers. It would go far to end the perception reality to some that the move to November was purely politically driven.
Ideally, elections would occur locally every four years, forever independent of national elections. This is not an insult to Alexandrias electorate, which is capable of distinguishing local issues from federal ones. Rather, it represents a more concentrated focus on local issues, which would enhance civic engagement. At the very least, separating local and national elections will not hurt civic engagement and the four-year model would align Alexandria effectively with its regional counterparts.
Staggered terms are an intriguing idea and are ideal with one caveat that ballots contain no party affiliation and names be listed in alphabetical order rather than grouped by party as they are currently (though there is technically no party distinction on the ballot). This would influence voters to become more involved with a given candidates ideas rather than his or her connection to pigeonholing label.
They would inspire a less crowded and therefore clearer candidate pool, providing for increased voter engagement and understanding of candidates issues. The model disallows piggybacking among a slate of several candidates, which is obvious and rampant during the competitive forums held under the citys current election process. It would provide a dynamic governing body as well, presumedly bringing some new officials and ideas to City Hall every two years without disrupting the governmental continuum maintained by the three anchored members beginning the second half of their terms as new members begin theirs.
However, the risk of voter fatigue would increase, adding an election every two years to the long list of state and federal offices. If the Council is serious about improving voter turnout, this could be a hindrance.
There is no reason to stop discussing the citys elections because not even the status quo is ideal, at least among the entire elected body. The roots of a significant compromise have showed themselves and should continue to grow in order to best represent the citys electorate.