Post #340: Choices for the Town’s election process

Posted on August 8, 2019

This brief posting points out two simple changes the Town of Vienna could make to ensure greater election transparency and greater voter participation.   The Town Council could vote to have the Virginia Campaign Finance Disclosure Act (CDFA) apply to Town of Vienna elections.  And it could vote to move Town elections to coincide with the November general election.

Apply the Virginia CFDA to Town of Vienna elections.

In terms of campaign finance, the only thing you really need to know is that no campaign finance laws apply to Town of Vienna elections.   None.   Anyone can spend any amount of money to influence the outcome of the election, and that’s perfectly legal and does not need to be reported anywhere.

I’ve written this up several times, and you can read the details, with citation as to sources, in Post #272.  Virginia does have a Campaign Finance Disclosure Act (CFDA).  Anyone who accepts more than $200 as a campaign contribution, or anyone who spends more than $200 in any attempt to influence the outcome of an election, must report that to the Commonwealth of Virginia.  Except that elections for officials in towns of fewer than 25,000 inhabitants are exempt from any reporting requirements under the CFDA.

But, Towns may voluntarily place themselves under the CFDA requirements.  Again, this is outlined in Post #272.   The Town of Herndon did just that, earlier this decade.

I think it’s high time for the Town of Vienna did that.  After the “motion to rescind” the 380 Maple West MAC zoning, there were calls for the Vienna Business Association to form a PAC for purposes of influencing the next election.  (Here, “influence” is not meant to imply nefarious purposes, it’s just the legal term used for anything done to get some preferred candidate elected).  If organized business money is going to be backing some candidates, I think the citizens of Vienna deserve to know that.

At any rate, as you can see from my earlier post, I was pushing for this long before this last turn of events.  With as much money as there is to be made through converting Maple Avenue to housing, we ought to have legal transparency about who’s spending what to get whom elected.

My sole concern about requiring CFDA reporting was the potential burden of having to do that.  Anyone who wanted to spend money influencing the election, or run as a candidate, would have to form a Viginia-registered PAC and make quarterly reports to the Commonwealth.  To be sure that was not onerous, I in fact formed a PAC and complied with those requirements myself, per Post #272.  It’s not hard to do, I have written instructions on how to do it, and if the Town should adopt this change, I’ll volunteer my services in helping potential candidates and others form the legally required Virginia PACs.

Hold Town elections in November instead of May.

In the Commonwealth of Virginia, Towns have the option of holding their elections in May, or holding them on the same date as the general election in November.  Currently, modestly more Virginia Towns use the May date compared to the November date.  By my count (see attached .xlsx workbook), 106 Virginia Towns use May, and 90 use November.

Virginia Towns by November versus May election date 2018, 2019-01-31

Why does this matter?  You get a vastly higher voter participation for the November general election date than for the special May Town election date.  In the Town of Vienna, at best, in a controversial year, we get about a 25% voter turnout for a May Town election (see Post #266).  By contrast, Vienna typically has a roughly 75% voter turnout for November general elections (calculated by eye, from the .pdf summaries of election returns available at this Fairfax County government web page.)

Want to see that in action?  Look no further than Herndon.  The Town of Herndon changed from a May election date to a November date in 2016.  Here’s a graph of the total number of Town Council votes cast during that time period.  Turnout roughly tripled — roughly what we should expect if the Town of Vienna were to follow suit.

As with the CFDA, my feeling is, if Herndon can do it, we can too.  There are some tricky political issues involved in the transition.  You can read the full text of Commonwealth law at this location.