PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — A bill aimed at moving all local elections in Virginia from May to November is moving forward, despite strong opposition from mayors whose cities will be affected.
On Monday, legislation overriding election dates set by existing city and town charters was passed by the Senate Committee on Local Government Monday by a 12-3 vote. The bill, sponsored by state Sen. Lionell Spruill (D-Chesapeake), says starting in 2022, a voter will elect mayors, City Council and School Board members during the November general election, no matter where they live in the commonwealth.
Supporters of the proposal say the move would help limit confusion, increase voter turnout and save localities money.
Opponents say it would just further politicize yet another sector of government.
Statewide, 16 cities and more than 100 towns would be forced to change their election cycle, according to the Virginia Department of Elections. The largest of those cities can be found in Hampton Roads.
Chesapeake, Norfolk, Newport News, Hampton, Williamsburg and Franklin all hold elections on the first Tuesday in May every other year.
On Monday, the majority of those mayors said they’d like to keep it that way.
“I tend to like the way we do it Newport News. Focus on Newport News and you don’t get tied up in national issues,” said Mayor McKinley Price, who has held his seat since 2010 and is currently the longest-tenured mayor in Hampton Roads. “I am not in favor of changing it.”
Mayors Rick West (Chesapeake), Kenny Alexander (Norfolk), and Donnie Tuck (Hampton) all had similar thoughts. They highlighted that holding elections when Democrats and Republicans are up-ballot poisons the independent nature of local government.
“The council elections are non-partisan,” said Alexander, who served in the General Assembly as a Democrat before running for mayor in 2016. “Our issues are different than partisan politics. Stormwater isn’t partisan.”
However, what seemed to anger the mayors even more, is that many of them weren’t even asked about the bill before it was filed.
“I find it appalling,” West said. “This to me is an abuse of power. Local government is where the people’s will is best expressed. They are completely ignoring what the people’s will is.”
Tuck added that Spruill’s move seemed “heavy handed” and that he is surprised there was no outreach considering Spruill chastised Gov. Ralph Northam’s (D-Va) administration when Northam proposed moving local elections without consulting senators last year.
Spruill did not immediately return a request for comment.
This is the second bill introduced at the state level this session aimed at changing city elections.
Del. Kelly Fowler (D-Virginia Beach) introduced a bill to change Virginia Beach’s voting system. The mayor there also said he wasn’t consulted.
However, Jeanne Hanewich attests local governments have been approached and chose to blow voters off.
Several years ago, Hanewich founded “Change the Date Chesapeake,” with a goal of convincing voters and City Council it would be a good idea for Chesapeake to move its elections to November.
“The people are not being heard. This is a constituent driven legislation, that’s what Lionell Spruill said this morning and it’s true,” Hanewich said. “This is about the people, not the politicians.”
Hanewich dismisses the argument that local elections aren’t already partisan, as often the local Republican and Democratic parties endorse candidates.
Rather, she asserts incumbents want to keep the system the same as they benefit from lower voter turnout. She said people don’t associate May with elections.
In May 2020, Chesapeake’s general registrar reported that turnout was “strong” the day of the election when turnout had eclipsed 10% at 2 p.m.
“When you have so few people voting for you, you don’t have a mandate,” Hanewich said. “These May elections make it very difficult for new people to get elected … that’s disgraceful, they should be ashamed.”
Hanewich said its an issue of voter suppression now that Election Day has been deemed a state holiday.
She is confident the bill will make it to the governor’s desk. Four Republicans voted to move the bill forward, along with all Democrats on the committee, which is made up of 15 lawmakers.
It is due for its first reading in front of the entire Senate on Tuesday.