Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Some council members against moving elections to November

It was at first “a no-brainer” to move Roanoke City’s local elections from May to November said Dr. Harry Wilson Director of Institute for Policy and Opinion Research and professor at Roanoke College. But on Tuesday he waivered on that opinion after studying the pros and cons of local elections.

Dr. Wilson admitted to primarily having state and federal election expertise and after more scrutiny of local election connotations he was conflicted. “I don’t think there is a right or wrong answer to this question,” he told city council.

November election will increase turnout. “Turnout would be significantly higher in November then it is in May … [but] is this a less informed electorate,” questioned Dr. Wilson. “Almost certainly yes.”

Council will have to decide if that is a bad thing he said. Undervotes – those not voting down ballot is common in all elections. “That’s pretty standard and unavoidable. I’m not sure that is a bad thing,” said Wilson. The ideal world he said would produce turnout of 100 percent informed voters.

Competition from other races in odd or even years “is a given” he said. It could be a problem when vying for airtime and media attention and “perhaps” they may become more partisan. That would depend on if local candidates “chose to make those elections more national in nature.” It is up to council to decide on whether this is a reason not to move the elections.

Dr. Wilson thought campaign costs would be higher for local candidates in competition for media attention. In this presidential election “forget it” he said. “You probably wouldn’t even be able to buy time on television between now and the election … Roanoke is an incredibly high advertising market for the presidential election right now.” That may not always be the case but it is unpredictable.

The city would save about $30,000 if in combines with state elections. Though November elections would have higher voter turnout and that was a good thing only “if the people who are voting are informed voters … but that is not the world in which we deal.”

Dr. Wilson prefers surveys to gage voter’s thoughts. Surveys are expensive so town hall meetings are the next best measurement – but again it may not be representative of all the citizens. The city just completed a citizen satisfaction survey last year and it will be several more years before there is another said city manager Chris Morrill.

Councilman Sherman Lea who initiated the conversation on moving elections back in May asked Dr. Wilson how he would characterize an “uninformed” voter. Dr. Wilson recounted a story about a voter’s response to why he voted for a candidate. He replied that it was because he had the same last name as the voter. “I define that person as an uninformed voter,” said Wilson. Another example he gave was when selecting 5 candidates from 15 candidates on the ballot – it is almost assured that the first 5 will win.

Those that vote in May are more interested in council elections. Moving elections to November “could disenfranchise interest groups [like] teachers or firefighters or police or even city employees.” It would dilute their voting impact. Voting in some areas is higher in all elections due to “socioeconomic status primarily,” said Wilson. Lea wanted the last six years of May election turnout looked at before a decision was made.

Wilson in analyzing surveys that quiz the voter on their knowledge said, “frankly I’m disappointed in us as a society that more of us don’t have the basics of what I think we should know.” There are a variety of reasons why people don’t vote said Wilson – either they feel disenfranchised or they are happy.

Once a locality moves to November elections it is harder to move them back said Wilson. It then appears that voters are being disenfranchised.

Councilman Dave Trinkle and Vice-Mayor Court Rosen came down on the side of keeping elections in May. Rosen said, “I’m 100 percent supportive of keeping them in May. I would rather have 100 percent of people who come and vote for me or whomever because they care about the issues and not because they happen to be affiliated with one party or the other … but I have no interest personally in being elected in November because I happen to be of a political party.” It could create a real problem with fiscal year budget planning said Rosen.

Dr. Wilson didn’t see that as a problem. “I don’t see a slate of Republicans being swept into office if the elections were moved to November.” He felt safe in predicting Roanoke City would go Democratic in November. Local issues won’t become nationalized said Wilson.

The question “is a tough one,” said Wilson. “It’s not the no-brainer that I thought it was.” He suggested looking at ways to increase voter turnout in May as an option.

Ray Ferris after a previous meeting in an e-mail pointed to other municipalities that felt they had made a mistake in moving their elections to November but he wanted to listen to what the people had to say. Bill Bestpitch sighted a VML conference workshop that influenced his thinking that November elections may not be a good idea.

Anita Price said in an e-mail she was in “favor of whatever it takes to get the vote out – and that also includes informing and educating citizens of the power of their vote and that their participation matters.”

Lea in an e-mail was adamant that moving elections to November is the answer to increasing voter participation. “It just troubles me when we have discussions on who is informed and as some on the national level feel if you are not informed you should not vote. I find it difficult to understand how a city that is Democratic can oppose a strong voter turnout!! Is that what our party is about. I am a Democrat!!!”

Mayor David Bowers has held his thoughts close to the vest and as of press time had not responded for comment.

With more data on the level of voter participation by precinct council will again discuss it in October.

Council comments in May:

Moving municipal elections from May to November is a snap

Councilman Sherman Lea says only ego would keep elections in May


Posted By Valerie Garner

Categories: Elections, Politics, Roanoke City Politics

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