Arlingtonians last week learned that a July 7 special election has been set to fill an open seat on the Arlington County Board created by the tragic death of Erik Gutshall.
Under Virginia law, a July 7 special election translates into a mere 14-day window for political parties to conduct their nominating processes. This timetable is aggressive even under normal circumstances. During a pandemic involving unprecedented social distancing measures, it’s impossible for a political party to safely run a nominating process open to the public in this amount of time.
Realizing we had no time to spare, the Arlington County Democratic Committee announced a process to meet this unreasonable timeline: a “virtual” caucus, in which members of our Steering and County committees would select the Democratic nominee for the special election. While these groups represent a broad cross-section of leadership within the county’s Democratic party, and our GOP counterparts in the county typically use such a closed nomination process for local elections, this option is not the best one available to us.
If the date of the special election could be extended to allow for a two-month nomination period (instead of two weeks), Arlington Democrats — and presumably the county’s other political parties — 6could conduct a secure and inclusive vote-by-mail nomination. Doing so would allow all registered voters to participate in selecting their respective parties’ candidates, while simultaneously maintaining social distancing measures needed to combat the current public health crisis. For its part, Arlington Democrats is ready, willing and able to conduct an open, vote-by-mail nomination process over a two-month period.
Arlington Democrats has initiated an online petition seeking the necessary extension and also are pursuing legal action before the courts, but the odds are long. Arlington’s very supportive representatives in the Virginia General Assembly report that 80% of that body would have to agree to an emergency motion, assuming that a special session of the General Assembly could even be called in time. In other words, our Democratic and Republican lawmakers would have to cooperate immediately and in unprecedented ways to achieve a bipartisan legislative solution for Arlington’s special election, subject to the Governor’s approval. By all accounts, this is exceedingly unlikely to happen.
Ensuring voting rights should not be a partisan issue — yet, across the country, we see the ballot box being treated as a political football. Wisconsin voters recently risked their lives to vote, after Republican leaders refused to postpone a special election during the pandemic. Most troubling are President Trump’s attempts to undermine the November presidential election with baseless attacks against measures like expanded vote-by-mail, which could protect voters while reinforcing our small “d” democratic institutions. In this environment, upholding those institutions and related societal norms, such as open political party nominations, is crucial.
Also crucial in these times is fostering a unified Democratic party—one that is strong enough to counter the extreme Trump-GOP politics and policies. Simply put, Democrats in disarray do not win elections. Achieving unity is the singular purpose of Democratic nominating and endorsement processes. These processes, whether conducted in-person, by-mail or through a virtual caucus, enable the pooling of limited community resources behind candidates who will fight for Democratic values and policy priorities— which we need now, more than ever, at all levels of government.
One of those Democratic policy priorities is the support of voting rights, which is why Arlington Democrats is fighting against the odds for an extended special election timeline that enables an open, vote-by-mail nomination process. On behalf of the many Democratic voters in Arlington, we implore our leaders across the political spectrum to extend the date of the special election by two months to allow safe, open and secure party nomination contests.
Jill Caiazzo, Chair, Arlington County Democratic Committee
The Arlington County Democratic Committee is the official county organization for the Democratic Party of Virginia.