Alexandrians react to the 2020 election

Alexandrians react to the 2020 election
A household shows support for Joe Biden. (Photo/Missy Schrott)

By Cody Mello-Klein |

After a tense post-Election Day tally, former Vice President Joe Biden is projected to be the country’s 46th president, and Alexandria’s residents have expressed a mix of relief, bewilderment and, for some, disappointment.

Biden’s lead in his home state of Pennsylvania put him over the 270 electoral vote threshold on Saturday, securing a path to the White House for himself and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. Soon after, Nevada turned blue. Biden’s electoral lead currently stands at 290-217 over President Donald Trump.

Local Democratic elected officials started weighing in almost immediately on social media after the news broke on Saturday.

“Monumental win for our democracy. Monumental win for our nation,” Councilor Mo Seifeldein said in a Facebook video he published on Sunday. “… It’s not over yet. We’ve got a few battles ahead of us, but let’s take this moment to celebrate. We’ve got a lot of work to do. Let’s do it.”

“Our nation has its first woman and first African American Vice President” state Del. Charniele Herring wrote on Facebook. “Hope for our nation’s future has been restored. Congratulations Vice President-elect Kamala Harris & President-elect Joe Biden!”

Biden and Harris won Virginia early on Election Day, and incumbent Sen. Mark Warner (D) and Congressman Don Beyer (D) won their re-election bids as well.

The city’s voters overwhelmingly supported Biden, with 80.28% voting for Biden and 17.63% voting for Trump, according to the Virginia Department of Elections. In addition, 1.24% of residents voted for libertarian candidate Jo Jorgensen and 0.85% wrote in candidates.

Voter turnout in Alexandria, which hit 82,773 according to the city’s registrar Angela Turner, surpassed that of 2016, 75,770, and 2012, 73,541, hitting a total of about 79% voter turnout. Although unlike in previous years, most of those ballots were cast prior to Election Day.

With the COVID-19 pandemic still raging across the country and state and new voting measures put in place by the General Assembly, Alexandrians cast their ballots by mail and in advance of Nov. 3 in record numbers. According to Turner, 66,154 Alexandrians, 79.92% of the vote total, voted early either by mail or in person.

The city reacts

Nationally and at the state level, Democrats took home a victory against a president who spent the days after Election Day calling for legal action, demanding recounts and repeating unproven conspiracies about the election process.

Many Democrats expressed a common sentiment after the news on Saturday: the need for strong, moral leaders that attempt to unite the nation during a pandemic and economic crisis.

“Virginians want responsible mainstream governments, and I think that’s what Virginia Democrats have been able to show time and again,” Warner said in a speech after he was re-elected. “… End of the day, people want us to get stuff done and that’s what I tried to offer to the people of Virginia this year.”

For Clarence Tong, chair of the Alexandria Democratic Committee, the stakes of this election were personal. As a Chinese American, Tong said he was disgusted at how President Trump had repeatedly used racist rhetoric throughout his time in the White House, including calling COVID-19 the “Wuhan flu” in reference to the Chinese city where the virus allegedly originated.

“For myself, and so many Americans, [the election] would kind of define the future of our country,” Tong said. “For the last four years, we had a leader who sought to divide people, attack people and their race, their gender, their sexual identity and just did things that were highly inappropriate for the office.”

Vice Mayor Elizabeth Bennett-Parker said she was particularly inspired by the election of Harris, the nation’s first female vice president, and what it could mean for the next generation of women.

“I think that, like she said, she will be the first woman to hold that office but not the last. Sort of speaking from a hopeful place, I hope she inspires more women, especially women of color, to run for office, including at the local level,” Bennett-Parker said.

The city’s Republican residents largely said that although they were not surprised by the outcome in the city, they were still disappointed. President-elect Biden’s message of national unity failed to connect with Mike Lane, a member of the Alexandria Republican Committee, who said he does not believe Biden will bridge the gap between parties.

“He’s got to tell his own party, at his own peril, that he is going to lead the charge in terms of meeting the Republicans halfway, and I see no evidence that he is up to that task,” Lane said.

Passionate politics

Republicans and Democrats in the city may be divided over the results of the election, but both sides were encouraged by the level of engagement and turnout by voters.

Both Tong and ARC chair Sean Lenehan said that res- idents were even more engaged in pre-election campaigning than they were in 2016.

“From a membership standpoint, our committee has never had more interest in members,” Tong said. “We had to expand the cap a few years ago after the 2016 election. We doubled our cap from 200 to 400 members and we’re getting pretty close to that now.”

Lenehan recalled ARC volunteers standing outside early voting sites leading up to Nov. 3 waving signs and flags.

“People that were driving down the street that saw us out there waving flags, they honked and they would stop and volunteer and stand with us and wave signs,” Lenehan said. “That’s something I’ve never seen before.”

Although Republican volunteers were actively engaged in campaigning, the party’s turnout at the polls was indicative of a polarizing presidential candidate like Trump, Lenehan said.

Although Trump’s numbers in the city were slightly higher than in 2016 – 14,544 in 2020 compared to 13,285 in 2016 – his performance among the city’s voters trailed behind past Republican candidates. Mitt Romney received 20,249 votes in 2012, John McCain received 19,181 votes in the city in 2008 and George W. Bush received 19,844 votes in 2004, according to the Virginia Department of Elections.

Adapting the process

Faced with a global pandemic, a higher than usual number of absentee ballots and a president who, even before Election Day, was casting aspersions on the electoral process, the Alexandria Office of Voter Registration and Elections had its fair share of challenges.

However, Democrats and Republicans alike agreed that the city’s registrar and election officers made the process smooth, efficient and relatively easy.

“The Alexandria election office is amazing,” Lenehan said. “They’re incredibly transparent, super professional and very efficient at what they do.”

While some jurisdictions in Virginia struggled with new early and mail-in voting processes, Alexandria was prepared early on for a pandemic-era election, Mayor Justin Wilson said.

“As you looked around the country and around the commonwealth, there were reports from a lot of other jurisdictions of things that did not go well as far as early voting and mail voting and all that stuff, and we just simply did not have those complaints in the city,” Wilson said.

In anticipation of Election Day, the Office of Voter Registration and Elections started processing the more than 66,000 absentee ballots it had received more than a week in advance, according to Turner.

“That’s a process that allows us to do pretty much everything required to check in and process and all of those [steps] to process an absentee by mail ballot except for the tallying,” Turner said. “… We just made sure we gave [ourselves] enough time so that we could process those absentee by mail ballots and then, of course account for all the in-person [votes] as well.”

After the first batch of Election Day ballots was counted on Wednesday and the results were announced, absentee ballots continued to arrive through Friday. Turner and her team kept the city’s absentee ballot precinct open until Friday to include those ballots in the final count.

All in all, Turner said she feels the process went smoothly this year, despite the circumstances, largely thanks to Virginia opening up restrictions related to absentee and mail-in voting.

Getting to work

Following Biden and Harris’ victory, many local Democrats have expressed an eagerness to get back to work and address the issues affecting the country.

The public health crisis posed by the coronavirus is ongoing, and the city faces a $41 million budget deficit in FY2022. Without a strategy to contain the virus – and eventually a vaccine – little can be done to prevent further damage, Warner said in his speech.

“In order to get the economy going again, we’ve got to get this virus under control and that means, just as Joe Biden has said, we’ve got to let the scientists and the doctors set the policy,” Warner said.

Wilson said he is optimistic that the new administration and Democrat-controlled General Assembly can set an agenda that will provide a path for further COVID-19 relief to localities, as well as infrastructure and urban renewal investments.

However, bitter political divisions remain a barrier to getting that work started. Whether President Trump will concede remains unclear, and Congressman Don Beyer urged the president to “pass the torch” for the good of the country.

“I recognize that this election has shown we are a divided nation, but we also have grave challenges that require immediate action,” Beyer said in a statement. “The time has come for President Trump to accept his defeat, pass the torch, and ensure an orderly transition of government for the Biden Administration.”

Looking ahead

For residents, community leaders and politicians on all sides of the political spectrum, the end of the 2020 election, if it is in fact the end, is the first step in a new direction.

However, some community leaders question whether that new direction will result in actual change. Chris Harris, president of the Alexandria chapter of the NAACP, said he remains hesitantly optimistic that the slate of Democratic victories can result in positive change.

Those in the Black community are used to politicians who support people of color during the campaign yet fail to follow through when they’re elected, Harris said.

“I’m always optimistic, but over the past four years a lot of things have been displayed, exhibited and brought to the forefront,” Harris said. “Those things do not automatically just turn off because there’s a new person in the White House. These are systemic issues that, to be honest, existed before our current president.”

“There are 70 million people who share [Trump’s] views, that feel that he would have been a benefit to their lives, one way or the other,” Harris continued. “Those people are still here. The man is gone, but the support does not just dissipate because he’s no longer in office.”

The level of excitement and engagement from local volunteers has left members of both parties in the city also feeling optimistic, in different ways, about the future.

Local Republicans said they are confident that between the state level police reform policies passed during the special session and an upcoming slate of local elections in 2021, a groundswell of conservative support is on the horizon.

“If you have a good Republican candidate statewide next year, there’s a good chance that they could win the governor’s race,” former City Council member Frank Fannon said.“A lot of people think Virginia has become a blue state, but that’s not necessarily true. It’s just a matter of having the right election and the right candidates.”

Democrats have been energized by their party’s victory at the state and national level and are already looking to support the future of their party in upcoming races.

“We have a lot of volunteers who are eager to continue doing work because there are still two Georgia Senate runoff races in January,” Tong said. “The energy and enthusiasm this year was just incredibly high, and I think that really helped solidify this outcome that we received.”