Vienna officials and the Virginia Municipal League (VML) are bucking a proposal by Gov. Northam to move scheduled May 5 municipal elections to the Nov. 3 general election because of the COVID-19 situation.
If the General Assembly in the April 22 veto session approves Northam’s proposed change, Vienna Mayor Laurie DiRocco and Council members Douglas Noble, Linda Colbert and Pasha Majdi would have to continue in their current terms, set to expire June 30, until winners of the November election were qualified for service.
Under Northam’s proposal, voters who already had cast absentee ballots in the Vienna election, as Fairfax County officials urged them to because of the virus outbreak, would have their votes discarded and need to vote again in November.
Vienna officials long have resisted moving town elections to November, on the theory that May elections are non-partisan and attract voters more likely to be familiar with the candidates and relevant issues. Voters in November also will be choosing the U.S. president and members of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Vienna Mayor Laurie DiRocco, writing on behalf of the Town Council, on April 10 sent a letter to the governor expressing concerns about moving municipal elections to the much more partisan November election.
“The ability for local elections to get attention during the presidential-election cycle will be extremely challenging and expensive for candidates who usually have limited resources and budgets,” the mayor wrote.
“Also, traditionally the local elections’ non-partisan status permits federal employees to participate in a manner that may be precluded in a partisan atmosphere, and the town wishes to avoid Hatch Act implications,” which in certain instances can be triggered if federal employees engage in political activity.
Instead of moving the May local elections to November, DiRocco recommended they be changed to June 23 and Virginia’s primaries – previously scheduled for June 9, but bumped back two weeks by Northam, using his statutory authority – moved to July 23 instead.
Doing so would adhere to the governor’s “stay-at-home” order, currently set to expire June 10. The change also would allow the COVID-19 surge to pass, extend the absentee-voting period and permit already-cast absentee votes to be counted, she wrote.
Whatever the final decision on timing, DiRocco told the Sun Gazette she would remain in office as long as required.
“I will stay until the end of whatever my term will be,” she said. “I definitely had other things in motion, but between coronavirus and what’s happening with the town, we’re just going to have to wait and see.”
Gary Scott, Fairfax County’s general registrar and director of elections in an April 10 interview with Vienna Town Manager Mercury Payton said the county already had received nearly 1,200 absentee-ballot applications for the Vienna election – more than the total votes cast in many previous Vienna Town Council elections.
This year’s election cycle is unprecedented because candidates have had little opportunity to meet town residents and share their qualifications with them, DiRocco’s letter read.
Town officials believe the compromise recommendation would permit safe, free and open elections on June 23 and maintain the June 30 term limit applying to some local officials, she wrote.
“We understand and support your desire to keep our state safe and healthy, but would appreciate the consideration of other options which would keep the public safe as well as maintain the integrity of our local election cycle,” the letter read.
“This is obviously an important decision, and I suspect everyone wants to get it right and make sure the election process is fair, transparent and safe, from a public-health perspective,” said Vienna Town Attorney Steven Briglia.
Vienna’s election this year features three Town Council members running to succeed DiRocco and seven contenders vying for three open Council seats.
Northam’s proposal has not sat well with the Virginia Municipal League, an advocacy organization for many of the commonwealth’s cities and towns and some of its counties.
In an April 10 letter to the governor, VML president Thomas Smigiel Jr. praised Northam for his “calm and deliberate leadership” during the COVID-19 pandemic, then asked that he “strongly consider” how the proposed election changes will affect localities. VML “adamantly opposes” discarding absentee ballots already cast, the letter read.
“Voters across Virginia submitted their choices for local leadership in good faith that their voices would be heard,” Smigiel wrote, adding that localities already had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars distributing and processing those ballots.
Northam’s proposal also would extend filing deadlines and allow for new write-in campaigns, Smigiel wrote. VML wants all original filing deadlines to stay in place, his letter read.
The governor’s proposal to keep in office public officials who were not seeking re-election and allow people not eligible to vote in May, but able to do so in November, “produces alarming constitutional questions,” Smiegel’s letter read.
VML leaders urged Northam and the General Assembly to consider switching the May election date to another Tuesday, keeping in mind the June 30 term expiration of some officeholders.
“To my knowledge, moving an election date past an elected official’s end of term has never occurred before in Virginia, at least not in recent history,” Briglia told the Sun Gazette.