The City of Newport News has voted to move its municipal elections from May to November, but even as they passed the ordinance, the city council members made it clear that they don’t think the change is a good idea. The change is required by legislation passed in the 2021 General Assembly session that goes into effect January 1, 2022.
“I think it really puts us in a tenuous situation. We have always worked as a council without being concerned about party lines and it seems like something of this nature may cause us to begin to look at things based on party and not based on what’s best for the City of Newport News,” Vice Mayor Saundra Cherry said. “I will not be voting for this even though I know that it’s state mandated.”
“I do share Dr. Cherry’s concern, and I am voting for it only because it’s mandated by the state and we are under the Dillon Rule and nothing I say here today is going to change it,” Councilwoman Sharon Scott said, referring to an American legal principle that limits municipal authority to power explicitly granted by state government.
She added, “I’ve been here 19 years and I think the May elections have kept us less partisan than the other seats that people actually run for, and I do think it’s going to be a problem.”
Senator Lionell Spruill, Sr. (D-Chesapeake) sponsored SB 1157 which moves municipal elections to November. In committee in the House of Delegates Spruill argued that May elections lead to low voter turnout and are harder for people with day jobs to participate in, a burden that especially affects minority communities.
“This bill is the people’s bill,” Spruill said. “I completely understand the impact of this legislation as I served on local government for two terms. I was elected in May.”
Spruill also said that May elections burden elections officials and infrastructure.
“Registrars are having to conduct back-to-back elections in the spring. With early voting now being expanded, this puts a heavy burden on the registrar in navigating March and June primaries and May elections,” Spruill said. “Reducing the number of elections will be a cost savings to localities as well as the state.”
The law narrowly passed the Senate with Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax casting a tie-breaking vote.
The law doesn’t just affect Newport News.
Norfolk Vice Mayor Martin Thomas spoke in a public comment period during the legislative session. He said, “Moving local elections from May to November will result in more partisan politics, more money in politics, a less informed electorate, and a greater barrier to entry for those local candidates.”
The Commission on Local Government published an Estimate of Local Fiscal Impact, where localities had the opportunity to weigh in on the shift. Some localities estimated that the shift would save money.
“The City of Norfolk would see a savings of about $100,000 – $200,000 from eliminating May elections for municipal elections. With May elections cut, cost savings would come in the form of ballots, mail in, postage, worker pay, overtime, and location costs,” the estimate states.
Other localities affected by the shift include Rappahanock County, which also said the change would reduce costs. Some localities that had already made the change voluntarily reported cost savings.
Some towns, including Marion, and Ashland estimated that the change would have negative impacts. Marion reported a fiscal impact of $25,000 for advertising and marketing to notify voters of the change.
“Our Council and staff are adamantly opposed to this proposal. The Town already funds our May elections so we should be able to determine when it occurs. Shifting local elections to align with state and national elections will likely increase the negative political noise in the local elections that have nothing to do with running a town,” Ashland’s report states.
In the meeting, Newport News Councilwoman Tina Vick expressed concern that the change was enacted quickly without effort to notify affected communities. “I don’t know anybody that any delegate or senator talked to as far as to get their opinion. It was just pretty much forced on us,” Vick said.
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