Our View: Let’s re-think how Alexandria conducts council elections

Our View: Let’s re-think how Alexandria conducts council elections

Alexandria is in the midst of our triennial local election cycle, in which we will select a mayor, six city council members and nine school board members in November. These elections are, confusingly, conducted similarly in some ways and differently in others.
We would love to see elections for council and school board become streamlined and more similar and have some suggestions below on how to do so. First let’s explore the similarities and differences, starting with ways in which they’re alike: – Both city council and school board elections are held every three years. The general election for both is held in November.

Because federal elections are held every two, four or six years for the House, Presidency and Senate respectively, sometimes local elections fall in even numbered years and coincide with federal ones.

Other times local elections fall in odd numbered years, where they may or may not coincide with state elections for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general. When our local election falls in presidential years – as in 2012 – voter turnout is vastly higher than when it coincides only with election for our state delegates, such as in 2015. The interest level about and participation in local elections thus varies dramatically from cycle to cycle.

– Both school board and mayoral/council candidates are listed on the November ballot without party labels, and thus are technically non-partisan. 

But that’s where the similarities end – and the differences are what create confusion. 

For instance, school board elections really are non-partisan. Candidates are not chosen by political parties, there’s no primary and there’s no limit on how many contenders can run in the general election. Local parties, however, can weigh in by endorsing candidates after they’ve filed to run.

Strangest of all, Alexandria’s local political parties choose their slate of candidates for council and their mayoral candidate in primaries – this year’s will be held on June 12 – yet that slate does not appear on the November ballot with party labels.

Another difference is Alexandria’s school board candidates are selected by districts, also sometimes referred to as wards, yet all council candidates are elected at-large. This means school board representatives are chosen only by the people who live in their districts. Those representatives are presumably more aware of and responsive to concerns within their districts.

This system means representation on the school board is balanced throughout the city and one part of town cannot be over represented and another under. Conversely, because of council’s at-large nature, representation tends to skew toward the Del Ray and Old Town neighborhoods and the city’s West End is often underrepresented.

This isn’t how it’s always been done in Alexandria. Earlier in the 20th century, city councilors were elected by wards and school board members were appointed by council.

While we don’t support a return to an appointed school board, there’s a lot of merit to how school board elections are currently conducted. We think the following changes would make Alexandria’s local elections more uniform, more representative and less confusing:

First and most importantly, let’s officially make elections for Alexandria mayor
and council nonpartisan. National party labels are virtually irrelevant at the local level – a candidate’s view on sanctions for Russia or Midwestern pipelines, for example, simply isn’t relevant as we try to deal with school capacity and sewer outfalls in Alexandria.

Party labels are essentially already meaningless, as anyone with an aspiration to serve on Alexandria’s city council or in the mayor’s chair knows their only possible path to victory is through the local Democratic party. This reality is evidenced by the 12 candidates
for city council running as Democrats versus one contending as a Republican.

Second, let’s go back to a ward system for council and make it consistent with school
board districts. The whole city would be better represented and concerns of each neighborhood would have a voice.

Finally, let’s return local elections to the spring rather than having them in the fall. The level of participation would be lower than when fall elections coincide with presidential campaigns, but there’s value in consistency and having
the spotlight solely on local issues.

Let’s have a discussion about how to conduct local elections. This is our view. What do you, our readers, think?