By Debbie Adams
Two weeks ago, members of Virginia Senate narrowly passed SB 1157 which says, in part, that “beginning with any election held after January 1, 2022, elections for mayor, members of a local governing body, or members of an elected school board shall be held at the time of the November general election for terms to commence January 1.” The bill advances to the House of Delegates and, if it passes there, needs a signature from the governor.
The bill goes on to state, “Mayors and members of a council or school board who were elected at a May general election and whose terms are to expire as of June 30 shall continue in office until their successors have been elected at the November general election and have been qualified to serve.”
In the Town of Vinton, mandated by the Town’s Charter, the mayor and four Town Council members are elected in May and take office on July 1, serving four-year terms. The mayor and two council members were elected in May 2020. The other two council seats come up for election in May 2022.
If the bill became law, it would override election dates currently set by existing city and town charters.
SB 1157 was proposed by Senator Lionell Spruill of Chesapeake, who contends that May elections result in substantially lower voter turnouts.
Vinton’s representative to the Senate, Senator David Suetterlein, voted against the bill.
“Vinton council elections should be focused on issues facing Vinton,” Suetterlein stated. “They deserve their own attention away from the big spending, federal November elections.”
That is the stance of Vinton Mayor Brad Grose, Vice Mayor Sabrina McCarty, and Councilwoman Laurie Mullins.
“May elections are important,” said Mayor Grose, who has served on Vinton Town Council since 2000. “They allow people to run who do not want to be part of the November hoopla.”
“I am not in favor of moving May elections to November,” McCarty said. “I feel that May is the best time for Town of Vinton election. It allows the community to truly focus on what they want for their local government and vote for the best representative, without being consumed with distractions from political views that occur during November.”
“I would prefer the elections stay in May,” said Mullins. “Local governments and their officials should be distanced from politics in my opinion. Most of the Washington or Richmond back and forth and party lines have no place in our town. We run as independents and stay that way when we are considering what is best for Vinton and our citizens. I feel like candidates would get lost or overshadowed if they’re on a ballot with state or national big names. The focus should be on local candidates because that’s where the change starts.”
Former Vinton Vice Mayor Wes Nance, now the Commonwealth’s Attorney in Bedford County, said, “I was disappointed to hear about the movement to push all local elections to November. I think it will have a profound, and overall negative impact on local races, such as for Vinton Town Council. Although candidates for council have always had political affiliations, opinions, and preferences, I think the Spring elections allowed for candidates to focus on local issues as opposed to the platforms of the national parties. If the legislation passes, I’m afraid that local issues will take a back seat to where candidates stand in relation to statewide or nationwide issues and candidates.
“I also fear that local races will be drowned out by the din coming from larger races that spend much more money than local candidates ever could. I believe it is inevitable that local races will be overwhelmed by the campaign machines of statewide or national races. They will have to attach themselves to such narratives or risk being completely ignored. Media attention, except for local newspapers such as The Messenger, will ignore the local races and focus on the candidates at the top of the ticket.”
Former Councilwoman Janet Scheid says she has mixed feelings about the issue, but that “moving elections to November might draw more attention to the local elections and encourage more dialogue on local issues and more spirited debate. Citizens might get more involved.”
One former council member said they might not have run for council during a particularly contentious presidential election year several years ago if the town election had been in November.
Some candidates have said that frequently when campaigning for May elections, they get questions during door-to-door campaigning about their stand on immigration, abortion, and other polarizing national issues, rather than local issues. They are often asked if they are Republicans or Democrats.
The Virginia Municipal League (VML) is also opposed to moving local elections to the November general elections.
In a press release, the VML stated, “Across Virginia, 44 percent of cities and 57 percent of towns hold their local elections in May, rather than November. These localities choose to separate their elections from those for state and federal offices for a variety of reasons–doing so keeps the focus of local elections on local issues and keeps the cost of campaigning more accessible for new candidates. The option to hold elections in May gives localities the flexibility they need to best meet the needs of their communities.
“The coincidence of local elections with those at the state and federal level inherently raises the level of partisanship of all elections, regardless of whether candidates are running without any party affiliation. By the same token, it introduces partisan politics to nonpartisan local issues; political parties make little difference when it comes to community projects like paving roads and keeping the streetlights on. This also raises the cost of campaigning for local candidates–especially for candidates new to the field–who have to compete for name recognition from the bottom of an even longer ballot.”
Spruill contends that it would be more fiscally responsible to consolidate the local elections onto the November ballot–more convenient and accessible for voters, and more cost efficient.
Town Executive Assistant Susan Johnson said that in 2020, the town’s cost for the May election was $3,540.72.
Many favor letting municipalities continue to decide independently for themselves when to hold local elections, holding referendums on the issue, amending their charters or adopting ordinances if they want to make the change.
Statistics from past Vinton elections seem to indicate that the numbers of voters is influenced by the competition for seats. In recent years, candidates for Town Council have mainly run unopposed.
In the May 2020 election, the vote count for the two Vinton precincts combined was 415 for Mayor Brad Grose, 373 for Keith Liles, and 343 for newcomer Laurie Mullins—all running unopposed. In the 2018 May elections, Sabrina McCarty and Mike Stovall ran unopposed and received 193 votes each.
However, in the 2016 election, with three candidates running for two seats, the vote count was 695; in 2014 with five candidates running for three seats, the count was 786.
In comparison, in the 2020 November 3 General Election, 1,283 citizens cast votes in the two Vinton precincts combined.
Some see low voter participation and uncontested elections as a widespread lack of interest in local issues in general. Plus, “in a time of such dissension, politics has gotten a bad name,” said one past candidate.
Mayor supports May elections
By Vinton Mayor Brad Grose
Thank you for the opportunity to express my opinion and concerns about moving the local elections from May to November. My perspective is based upon the twenty-one years that I have served as an elected official in the wonderful Town of Vinton.
By many measures, we have experienced tremendous success in the Town of Vinton, especially over the past few years. We have been blessed with growth and improvements in many areas of our town. There are many reasons for our recent progress including the blessings of God, a powerful professional staff, supportive citizens, and a Town Council that works well as a team. As individuals, we do not always agree, but all of us want, as we often say, “whatever is best for the Town.”
During my tenure as part of Town Council, it has been completely void of partisan politics. I fear that moving the elections to November would introduce partisan politics into the Town Council that could prove very harmful to the current cooperative atmosphere. I believe there would be an unavoidable association with political parties.
I am further convinced that many highly qualified, passionate individuals would not run for Town Council if the elections were held in November. Some awesome people simply want to serve their community by sharing their God-given talents to make this a better place to live, not for political recognition. It is that simple!
The May elections allow our citizens to become familiar with the local candidates and the local issues. If the elections are held in November, the state and national issues and candidates would surely consume the attention and interest of the media and thus the voters. Can you imagine any local issue such as refuse collection or street conditions trying to compete with national issues such as abortion or national defense? The local issues, although highly impactful upon our everyday lives, would simply disappear.
The COVID-19 pandemic had an enormously negative impact upon the most recent local election in May 2020. Many elements of running for Town Council such as meeting with the citizens, knocking on doors, or placing yard signs, (all of which I love) simply could not occur. Usually, candidates can be seen and easily contacted for their opinions and answers to questions about local neighborhood issues. I submit that with November elections, the questions would concern state and national issues, not local.
There is also a great amount of tradition in having local elections. I believe that many of our citizens enjoy the May elections and all the attention it brings to our Town and local situations. Many of our citizens enjoy the fact that they know the candidates personally and consider them to be friends with common interests.
Finally, I believe that local elections are representative of how government should work in our country; the smaller, the better! I believe that countless problems exist in our nation because many of our citizens feel that their voice is not being heard. They are correct. Moving the elections from May to November would further dilute the individual voices of our citizens. Instead of a local vote being one of hundreds, it would be one in thousands. May elections are an important part of our American tradition that should not be taken from us. I hope we will continue to have May elections “In Vinton.”