Roanoke City Council is mulling whether to move city council elections from May to November.
The argument for: A lot more people vote in November than in May. That’s a good thing, right?
Yes, yes it is, assuming you believe in democracy.
The argument against: How many people will pay attention to council elections if they’re on the ballot with a bunch of other stuff?
Don’t know, but we already know how many people don’t pay attention to council elections. Right now, about 10% to 15% of city voters bother to cast ballot in May elections. Are people OK with city government being selected by such a small slice of the electorate? A cynical but realistic answer: Apparently the non-voters are.
How would city council elections change if they were in November? It’s impossible to predict all the ways things would change, but one is obvious: It would take a lot more votes for someone to get elected. Let’s look at the numbers.
Over the past twenty years, turnout in the May elections has ranged from a low of 6,695 voters (in 2010, when seven people sought three council elections) to a high of 15,247 voters (in 2000, when there was a four-way race for mayor and eight candidates seeking three council seats.)
In the past two cycles, 7,333 voters cast ballots in 2016 and 8,212 went to the polls in 2018, which suggests that 2000 turnout was something of an aberration.
If council moves elections to November, it would move them from even-numbered years to odd-numbered years. That avoids an alignment with a presidential election and instead would put council members on the ballot with either a governor’s race and House of Delegates elections in one cycle or a combination of House and state Senate elections in the other cycle. (Council seats are staggered, so some years three are on the ballot; other years it’s the other three council seats plus the mayor.)
Over the twenty years, turnout in Roanoke in gubernatorial elections has been remarkably consistent — ranging from a low of 20,781 to a high of 24,699. That’s about triple the number that voted in most council elections.
The General Assembly-only years draw few voters. During the past twenty years, city turnout has ranged from 11,803 in 2007 to 17,973 in 2015. Even that lowest figure is higher than most council elections (although noticeably lower than that council-and-mayor free-for-all in 2000).
If council elections were held in November, who would those additional voters be? And how would their choices be different from the people now voting in council elections? Those are the two big questions, and we can’t really answer that because there’s no real data. We can reliably surmise, though, that the electorate in November would be somewhat younger than in May — we just don’t know how much younger. May elections are dominated by older voters but given the city’s demographics we shouldn’t assume a November electorate would be appreciably younger — but it likely would be slightly younger.
Would it be more partisan? That’s always been one fear of November council elections. The other elections on the November ballot — for governor and General Assembly — are intensely partisan. Council elections tend not to be — but several important caveats must be made.
The most important one is this: No Republican has been elected to council since 2000, when Ralph Smith was elected mayor (in that famous four-way race) and Bill Carder was elected to council. Smith left after one term and Carder was defeated for re-election. To that extent, Roanoke council elections are already partisan: It’s basically been impossible for a Republican to win a council election in May. Move council elections to November, and it will become even more impossible for a Republican to get elected to council (absent a ward system). Roanoke is reliably Democratic and becoming more so. Over the past two decades, most Democratic candidates for governor polled 62% in the city; even the weakest took 52%.
The real dynamic in city council elections has been Democrats who have bypassed the party nominating process to run as “independent Democrats” — rightly suspecting they’d fare better in the general election than in a party nominating contest. Often they’ve won, proving their point. One of them — Bill Bestpitch — sits on council now. The last council election, in 2018, was marked by a new phenomenon — two actual independents (Michelle Davis and John Garland) ran and won.
Would a November electorate — certainly bigger, likely more partisan — make it more difficult for independents to win? Probably, although that’s more a matter of an educated guess than actual data points, because we have no data point to go on. We do have the cautionary tale of former council member Ray Ferris. Originally elected as a Democrat, he sought re-election last year as an independent. Ferris polled more votes than he had four years prior —except this time he lost. In 2018, the electorate was bigger, and bigger in ways that benefited Democratic candidates. You can argue that Ferris — a noted budget hawk — had become too conservative for the city’s electorate, but mathematically, he simply ran out of votes in a bigger electorate. In 2016, independents Davis and Garland needed only 4,143 votes and 3,534 to win. Independents would need a lot more votes than that to win in November; could they find them? That would be a lot harder in a gubernatorial year when political parties are organized around that race.
The question becomes more interesting in the off year, when just the House and state Senate are on the ballot. Consider this year. Neither delegate representing parts of the city — Democrat Sam Rasoul and Republican Chris Head — has opposition. The city’s state senator —Democrat John Edwards — faces only an independent, Steve Nelson, who has been little heard from so far. There’s really not much reason for city voters to go to the polls this November, except out of a sense of civic duty or an interest in an unusual contest for the otherwise obscure Soil and Water Conservation Board where civic activist Freeda Cathcart is trying to win a seat by ousting an incumbent.
If city council elections were being held this November, they’d be the big driver, not the General Assembly races. Turnout would likely be higher than in May, simply because voters are more attuned to November elections.
But how much else would really change? We won’t know unless and until city council moves them.