Breaking the cycle

Breaking the cycle

By Anna Harris (File photo)

State Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-30) wants to shake up the city’s election cycle.

He worries that Alexandria’s three-year term system — one that no other municipality in the state uses — confuses voters. He believes local elections seemingly come out of left field to the average resident.

“I like having some certainty for voters … that [elections are] regular,” Ebbin said. “With three-year terms, people are constantly scratching their heads. If people know it’s going to happen and there’s a cycle of regularity, there’s a benefit for community conversation.”

Moving municipal elections to odd years — and adopting staggered, four-year terms — would make for a more understandable election schedule, Ebbin said. It’s an idea he pitched to city councilors during a work session on Alexandria’s legislative packet last week. With their permission, he will raise the issue during the upcoming General Assembly session.

But implementing the new model would mark the second such scheduling change in recent years. In 2009, city council moved local elections from May to November, putting municipal candidates on the ballot alongside President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney last year.

The result was an uptick in voter participation. But did the national campaigns overshadow the local races? Ebbin believes it’s more than likely.

Though Alexandria’s elections won’t align with a presidential contest again until 2024, changing the local cycle ensures voters can focus on candidates and issues closer to home, Ebbin said.

“I see it as a way to focus discussion on city issues at a time when things aren’t being overshadowed by other elections,” he said.

And staggering the council elections, as is done in the U.S. Senate, would give voters more time to focus on just a few candidates, said City Councilor Justin Wilson.

“It’s very hard to keep up with all the candidates … [so it’s] hard to make a lasting opinion,” he said. “Staggering and allowing voters to really get to know candidates will really improve the accessibility of the elections.”

The proposition comes with potential negative consequences, like lower voter turnout per election. But that’s an acceptable trade-off, according to Wilson.

“Obviously you want that [higher number], but it’s not as big of a deal,” he said. “We want people to have as much of an opportunity [to be involved] as possible.”

Though the last change to Alexandria’s election schedule left Republican activists grumbling that their counterparts across the aisle were tinkering with the rules for an advantage, that’s not the case here, Wilson said.

“If anything, you could argue that if we were doing this for partisan advantage, we would keep things the way they are,” said Wilson. “The way the conversation is going is geared toward a change to match [the schedule of] state elections.”

Then there’s also the fear that another change in the election cycle would simply sow further confusion among voters. But Ebbin said the timing is perfect for reworking city elections.

“I feel that we need to have this discussion now in order to implement any changes in advance of a November 2015 scheduled election,” he said. “It wouldn’t be an easy change until 2027 otherwise. You could do it in between, but it’s just that it wouldn’t fall naturally.”

City councilors haven’t decided whether to back Ebbin’s proposal. Wilson said they likely will choose whether to discuss the idea further — or drop it altogether — next week.