On Tuesday, the polls will be open from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m.
If history is any guide, most of you will find something else to do besides vote.
Virginia has elections every year, so by some measures, these aren’t off-year elections, these are off-off-year elections, where turnout is even lower.
Keep this in mind, though, before you give things a pass on Tuesday: In many ways this is the most important election cycle of all because the winners here are the officeholders whose decisions you’re most likely to be touched by.
You might get upset about what the president and Congress do, but their action or inaction often seems pretty distant to our daily lives. On the other hand, the offices on the ballot Tuesday really do matter in ways we can see every day — whether it’s the number of students crammed into your kid’s classroom, or whether you get popped for speeding on the way home because now deputies are running radar on that stretch of highway where you used to be able to goose the gas.
However, there are two different types of elections on the ballot Tuesday, and voters ought to consider them two different ways.
The first are the purely local elections taking place in many localities — for boards of supervisors, for school board, for sheriff, for commissioner of the revenue, for treasurer, for clerk of court.
Some of these candidates are running with party backing, some are not. Here’s a hint: For these offices, party affiliation really doesn’t matter. Supervisors are policy-making positions, so perhaps the candidate’s party gives you some insight into his or her overall worldview. The reality, though, is there really isn’t a partisan position on the key issues that supervisors deal with.
Let’s take Roanoke County as an example. The fundamental problem the county faces is that an extraordinary 87 percent of its revenue comes from property taxes. The overarching issue facing the entire Roanoke Valley is how to spur more job creation. Conveniently, the best way to lighten the tax load for property owners without reducing services is to increase economic development — change that 87/13 ratio.
However, the choices before the county on how to do that — to lay an infrastructure of broadband fiber, to find bigger building sites for prospective companies — don’t neatly fit onto a Democratic-Republican spectrum. The Roanoke County board has often been divided 3-2, but it’s been more about personalities than policies — with two Republicans and one independent in a more collegial majority, and one Republican and one independent in a more contentious minority.
Framed that way, the Catawba District race between Butch Church (the contentious independent above) and Republican Martha Hooker is as much about style as it is substance — while the outcome of the remarkably cordial Cave Spring District race (between Charlotte Moore, the collegial independent above) and Republican George Assaid won’t change the board’s outlook very much at all (although Moore is more pro-broadband).
Meanwhile, the so-called constitutional offices — sheriff, commissioner of the revenue, treasurer, clerk of court — aren’t policy-making offices at all. Those offices may be well run; they may be poorly run, but there’s not a particular Democratic or Republican way to arrest criminals or collect taxes or file legal papers.
That’s a long-winded way of saying for those offices, you’re better off voting for the man (or the woman), and not the party, whatever the party happens to be, because the party won’t really make a difference.
Exactly the opposite holds true for the General Assembly. All 140 seats in the legislature are up for grabs — although most of those are unopposed, and even some of those that are opposed aren’t especially close. You can blame redistricting for some of that — as in gerrymandering that has created oddly shaped districts for partisan advantage — but you should also blame realignment and residential patterns. It’s simply hard to draw a competitive district in some parts of the state, especially west of the Blue Ridge where voters now swing overwhelmingly Republican except for certain pockets of Democrats.
Tuesday’s election will do absolutely nothing to change the general makeup of the House of Delegates: It will remain firmly in Republican hands. The big question is the Senate, where Republicans hold a narrow 21-19 advantage. There are three contested seats in our part of the state, although the only one expected to be close is the district from Roanoke to Giles County where incumbent Democrat John Edwards is challenged by Republican Nancy Dye and independent Don Caldwell.
We’d like to tell you that you should vote the man (or the woman, as the case may be). We’d also like to tell you that money grows on trees and that unicorns prance merrily through the fields.
The harsh reality is that the General Assembly has become intensely partisan — more so than in the past — so yes, party here does matter. Some legislators are smarter and more energetic and more persuasive than others, and on many technical or regional issues the party labels don’t really matter. However, on the big ones they do.
The Rolling Stones were right: You can’t always get what you want. Maybe you think the Republican in your district is the better candidate, but you really want the state to expand Medicaid. Sorry, ain’t gonna happen. If you want Medicaid expansion, you need to vote Democratic. If you think that’s a fiscal gamble the state shouldn’t take, you ought to vote Republican. (Reality check: Either way, it’s not getting through a Republican-controlled House.)
There are some occasional deviations from the party line — Edwards is, famously, a Democrat who’s pro-gun enough to get the National Rifle Association’s endorsement — but those nowadays tend to be more on the D side than the R side.
Partisan differences are not necessarily bad; the parties do represent two very different ways of thinking. Generally speaking, Republicans are more likely to advance bills restricting abortion and letting home-schoolers play on public school sports teams; Democrats are more likely to look for ways to raise teachers’ pay. And so forth and so on.
So, the question voters really face on Tuesday is not which senator you want to represent you in Richmond, but which party do you want in control?