Post #1322: Changing Town of Vienna elections: Avoiding high voter turnout?

Posted on November 14, 2021


There’s a public hearing tomorrow (Monday 11/15/2021) regarding proposals to change Town of Vienna elections.  This is in response to legislation that requires all Virginia towns to hold elections on the standard first-Tuesday-in-November election day, instead of in May.   According to the sponsors of that legislation, the point is to boost voter participation in those local elections.

I foolishly thought that the transition from May to November elections was cut-and-dried, because Virginia statute lays out a simple process for doing that.  As you move the election date back six month (from May to November), you give each incumbent roughly an additional six months in office.  After that transition, no other change is needed.

Then I took a look at the complex wording of the options the Town is considering.  And I could not for the life of me figure out why they’ve opted to make the proposed changes.  Why take something as potential simple as this, all laid out neatly in statute, and complicate it?

I had to put all the options in a table to realize that the only thing NOT up for discussion in the officially-sanctioned options is even-versus-odd-year elections.  It looks like the citizens of Vienna can have any November election schedule they want — as long as all elections are held in the off-years. 

This choice runs  contrary to what the overwhelming majority of November-voting Virginia Towns have chosen.  Choosing the odd years means not just being in the minority on this issue, it means minimizing voter turnout for Town of Vienna elections into the foreseeable future.  I think that’s a bad choice.

Background:  This could be straightforward.

If you need some background on the general issue of the switch to November Town elections in Virginia, you can read through these prior posts:

  • Start with Post #340, which introduces the benefits of moving Town elections to the standard first-Tuesday-in-November election day.  That’s where I first learned that Herndon’s election turnout tripled when they did that.
  • Post #1095 introduces recently passed legislation in Virginia that moves all Town elections to the standard first-Tuesday-in-November date.
  • Post #1135 was about our more recent town election, which, barring new legislation, will have been the last May election in Vienna.

Throughout my discussion of the change, I assumed that the Town would follow the transition to November elections as laid out in Virginia statute.  The transition from May to November elections is laid out in “§ 24.2-222.1. Alternative election of mayor and council at November general election in cities and towns“.

C. ... Mayors and members of council 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 effect, you give the incumbents another half-year in office, for the transition from May to November, and you’re done.

And so, this transition could easily be handled by holding elections in November and making no other changes, other than lengthening the terms of the incumbents as specified in Virginia statute.  Right now, Town Council has staggered two-year terms, with three seats up every year, and the Mayorship in every even year.  All they have to do is extend terms as outlined in the law, and they’d be done.  Elections would occur every November, and that would be the only change.

If you want to see the likely impact on voter participation, just look at nearby Herndon (above).  They switched to November voting in (the even year of ) 2016.  And voter participation in their Town elections roughly tripled.

But for some reason, that’s not what’s on the table in the Town of Vienna.

I had (foolishly) assumed the Town would do just that.  Keep it simple, and change the elections as outlined in statute.  But I was wrong.  As with much of what the Town does, it’s all but impossible to take the written documents and understand what’s being proposed.

Aside:  It shouldn’t be this hard.

You can find some limited popular-press reporting of this issueThat reporting is the only place where it is clearly stated that you, as a citizen, may suggest your own alternative to the Town’s proposed changes, at this hearing.  But when you try to find out what the actual language of the proposals is, that’s when it gets difficult.

Let me put aside just how hard it is to know that this is in play.  Chrome on a PC won’t even open up the Town’s website due to a misconfigured security certificate message.   Firefox on a PC or Chrome on a phone will open it, but the splash page is so misconfigured that you can’t actually read what the public hearing is supposed to be about.  The text bleeds off the page.  And if you click on the public hearing link, you are informed that there is, in fact, a public hearing on Monday.   But with no clue as to what the hearing is about.  As pictured below:

Long story short, if you already know that this is happening and you already know where to look, you can find that out.  You have to look at the Town’s Legistar page, find the link to the meeting, and find the particular agenda item.  (And realize there are, I think, at least two separate public hearings scheduled for Monday).

If you read the Town’s official notice, and you’ve read the popular press reporting, then you might be able to infer that this phrase ” The Town Council will consider the listed options, options as modified, as well as additional options suggested at the Public Hearing.” means that you have been invited to suggest alternatives.  But, honestly, I read that and I didn’t grasp the fact that “additional options suggested at the Public Hearing” was an invitation for the public to suggest alternatives. 

Maybe I’m just slow, but I had a hard time grasping what all the complication was about.  Particularly because, as noted above, Commonwealth statute lays out a simple and obvious transition.

Instead, the Town is considering the following options: Changing to staggered four-year terms (three Town Council seats up for re-election every two years), or to un-staggered two year terms (all Town Council seats up for re-election every two years).  They’re considering some combination of giving some incumbents an additional year-and-a-half on their existing term, skipping one year’s election, and inserting some three-year terms, in order to make that all work out.

Once again, the complexity of that struck me as odd.  It’s almost as if they’ll consider anything but the system we’ve used for decades (half of Town Council is up for re-election every other year).  I would have assumed that the baseline was to do the simple thing (each existing term is about six months longer, no other changes.)  But that’s not even on the table.

It wasn’t until I put the three options in a table that I finally figured it out:  You can have any voting you like, as long as the vote is held in the off years (odd years) only.  Based on some earlier reporting on this issue, this apparently is what the majority of current Town Council wants.  That seems to be based on the fear that holding Town elections in the even years will somehow taint them with partisanship, or reduce attention on Town issues.  (N.B., as is true in almost all states, local elections of this type are non-partisan.  Since 1870, Virginia has barred the listing of party affiliation on ballots for local elections.)

Let me put the table of options here, because without that, based solely on the text descriptions, you may have a hard time seeing this plainly.

The key point is circled in red.  Much of the rest of the complexity, highlighted in the notes section, is a consequence of moving the current even-year elections to an odd year.  By simple arithmetic, doing that is going to require one term with an odd number of years.  By law, you are not allowed to shorten anybody’s existing term to make this transition.  So, practically speaking (barring having a transition election for a one-year term of office), moving the current even-year election to an odd year is going to involve a three-year something for the incumbents up for election in 2022.  Either give them a three-year term when they are re-elected in 2022 (Options 1 and 3), or convert the existing terms to three years by skipping an election (Option 2)..

I’ll make the obvious point that you could just as easily configure this so that elections are held in the even (high-turnout) years.  Or just leave it as it is, do the simplest possible transition, and have half the elections in the even years, and half in the odd years.

The data

Source:  Virginia Department of Elections

It’s no secret that election turnout is higher when there’s a high-stakes national election.  Above you see Virginia’s turnout (as percent of registered voters) for the past 45 years.  Turnout is highest in the (even) presidential election years, and lowest in the (odd) year just prior to a presidential election.

Let me formalize that by actually calculating the averages instead of just eyeballing it.


Source:  Virginia Department of Elections, and, separately, calculated from Fairfax County Office of Elections data for the Town of Vienna (TOV).

Above, first two bars, in Virginia, you get about one-third more voters (about 16 percentage points higher turnout) in even years.  Above, second set of bars shows that participation runs coincident with the U.S. Presidential elections.  Above, third set of bars shows the dismal turnout for a typical Town of Vienna election, and the mediocre turnout even in a hotly-contested election.  (It isn’t unusual for all seats in the Town elections to go uncontested, so low average turnout isn’t unexpected.  For those elections, there’s no practical point to voting.  For the uncontested elections, my wife votes, I don’t.  But even for a contested election, less than one-quarter of the electorate votes.)  I documented Town of Vienna election turnout in Post #266.

The obvious implications here are that, in terms of maximizing voter turnout, any November election is better than the May Town election.  And that November elections in even years are superior to November elections in odd years.

That said, we can ask one final empirical question:  What do other Virginia Towns do?  In particular, what do the Towns that already have a November election date do?  As I noted in Post #340, almost half of Virginia Towns have already opted for November elections.  So it’s not as if we lack for data on the typical choice.

Source:  Tediously calculated from the .pdf supplied at this page, by the Virginia Department of Elections.

Virginia Towns with local elections in November have opted to hold those elections in the higher-turnout even years, by a 4.5 to 1 margin.  Town Council seems to be suffering from some free-floating fear of partisan taint of local elections held in even years.  The clear point of this table is that a) a lot of Towns manage to survive, and b) if you want to base the decision on facts, there are seventy-odd Virginia towns that should be able to answer the question “are local elections tainted if held in November of even years”.

In any case, that vague and un-documented fear aside, the whole point of moving the elections to November is to increase voter participation in local elections.  If that’s the goal,  then to me — along with the clear majority of Virginia Towns so far — even years are clearly superior to odd years.

Vienna could leave things much as they are, and have half of the local elections in even years, half in odd years.  They could follow the example of the vast majority of Virginia Towns with current November elections and go for the higher-turnout even years.  Or they could go out of their way to pick the years with lower voter turnout, based on the un-documented fear of partisanship in local elections.

Seems like if you’re going to do that, minimum due diligence would be to call up a few of the Towns with November elections and try to benefit from their experience.  Heck, take a field trip:  Herndon, Dumfries, and Leesburg are nearby towns with even-year November elections.  (Per the Virginia Department of Elections).  Why not ask them?  In short, do anything but lock in lower voter participation, for all eternity, based on what amounts to an undocumented fear, when you could easily put that fear to rest (or find out that it’s real!) with a few phone calls.