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Local elections moving to November

November is now the only month for all general elections in Virginia.

Gov. Ralph Northam on March 12 signed Senate Bill 1157 into law. The legislation is effective July 1.

Historically, about 100 jurisdictions across the state, including many locally, held elections for local offices in May. After Jan. 1, 2022, any elections set for May will be in November instead. Sen. Lionell Spruill, a Democrat who represents Chesapeake, introduced the bill.

The rationale for the change is that voter turnout for May elections is typically low. By combining local, state and federal elections, the idea is voter turnout will be higher. Supporters of the change also say the move saves money by eliminating the need to run multiple elections. Advocates also say that voter confusion may be reduced because all voting for all elected offices happens at the same time.

However, opponents of the change say the result will be increased partisan polarization of local elections, which will divert attention from important local ballot issues. Some opponents also characterize the move as a power grab by the state, which strips local governments of the power to set their own political agenda independent of what’s happening at the federal or state level.

In a February letter to Northam, Michelle Gowdy, executive director of the Virginia Municipal League, urged the governor to amend the bill to give localities three years to comply with the new legislation. The league is a nonprofit, nonpartisan association of city, town and county governments.

The advantages Gowdy cited of allowing localities until Nov. 30, 2024 to adjust include that jurisdictions could determine whether an odd or even year election cycle is best. In addition, the delay “also removes any potential lawsuits relating to the extension of terms of office as this extra time will allow localities to ensure that their terms of office are appropriate and in compliance with their current practice.”

Without the extra time, “localities will be forced to act within the next month in order to align themselves with either an odd or even year election cycle.” Gowdy wrote that 105 towns in Virginia hold public meetings just once a month and they don’t have weekly newspapers, which makes it “impossible to draft an ordinance, allow for advertising, hold a public hearing, and approve said ordinance in that time frame.”

However, some local officials in Western Tidewater said they don’t expect the new law to substantially or immediately change the election process. For example, Isle of Wight registrar Lisa Betterton said there are no scheduled May elections in Smithfield this year.

The terms of Smithfield Mayor Carter Williams and council members Wayne Hall, Valerie Butler, and Beth Haywood are all scheduled to end in June 2022. The terms of Vice Mayor Michael Smith, Rene Rountree and Randy Pack are scheduled to end in June 2024.

In Windsor, the terms of town council’s seven members are slated to end in December 2022 or December 2024.

In Isle of Wight County, “the elections of members of the Board of Supervisors and School Board members have traditionally been held in November so I am not aware of any impact this legislation will have on the Hardy District and Carrsville District elections,” assistant county administrator Don Robertson said.

The terms of school board chairwoman Jackie Carr and board member Alvin Wilson are scheduled to end Dec. 31. The terms of the other three members — vice chairwoman Denise Tynes, Vicky Hulick and Julia Perkins — end in December 2023.

On the Isle of Wight Board of Supervisors, vice chairman Don Rosie and Supervisor Rudolph Jefferson are slated to end their terms Dec. 31. The terms of the remaining members — chairman Dick Grice, Joel Acree and William McCarty — end in 2023.

Surry County also has no town elections scheduled this May, so the election day change “will not impact the town officials until November 2022,” Surry registrar Sharna’ White said.  She also predicted that the election day change will increase voter turnout for elections in the county’s three towns — Surry, Claremont and Dendron. Increased voter participation is a goal of the leaders in the county’s towns as well as the Surry registrar’s office, said White, who pointed out two other upsides to the change.

The first is the move will reduce funding for the town offices. Previously towns “were responsible for the total cost of those elections. Another benefit will be the reduction of volunteer hours needed from our election officials during that election year, which is especially helpful in the event we are still dealing with this pandemic during that time,” White said.

However, “one change voters will notice is the voting precincts for the town election will move from the Dendron town hall to the general election precinct, the Dendron Community Center.” White said voters will receive new voter registration cards by mail when that action is taken. “If there are any additional voter impacts, my office will do the very best to get information to the voters and the general public in a timely manner.”