Now It’s a Party: Local Elections May Be Decided in June for a While

by Joe Fitzgerald

It looks like 12 percent of people voting in Harrisonburg’s Nov. 8 City Council election cast a vote for only one of the four candidates instead of the two they could have voted for. But that number needs more asterisks on it than a home run record.

Single-shot votes are difficult to count. Count isn’t even the right word. Estimate, maybe. Guess, certainly. And although there were three local races, the same guesses and estimates don’t apply to all three, since one was for a single seat, one for two seats, and one for three seats.

All that means no exact numbers, but some clear trends.

One of those trends is that the city’s voters won’t vote against someone just because they’re Black. Nor will the electorate vote for someone just because the candidate is Black. There will be a three-person African-American majority on City Council come January 1, with one of them elected this year and one re-elected unopposed. But in the School Board race, two Black candidates lost, one of them an incumbent.

Each of the contests was apparently decided based on issues and personalities more than on race. We’re a century away from any southern city being color-blind, but this is as close as we’ll get for a while.

But if race wasn’t an issue, party was. Even without a race for Senate or president at the top of the ballot, the Democratic candidates won the city with almost two-thirds of the vote. The African-American candidates for City Council won with Democratic nominations, while the two running for School Board lost to three candidates endorsed by the Democratic committee.

That means the observation above about issues and personalities may be half-right. They mattered more than race, but less than party. That’s in keeping with my frequent claim about my political predictions and analyses: I’m right more often than anybody in the city and I’m wrong more often than I’m right.

Back to numbers. Various computations that would make your eyes glaze suggest that of the 10,410 people who voted, 9,000 cast ballots in the contested City Council race. In the School Board race, 8,500 or so voted. In each case, and in the congressional contest, the Democrats got around 63 percent. Full disclosure, I was working closely with the School Board winners.

Around, about, approximately, estimate, guess: vote for not more than three, but only one or two if you’d like, except in the race where it’s two. Exact numbers are difficult. One could get more exact numbers by reading nine or 10 machine tapes, which would be a good project for a sophomore politics major. Getting those numbers for all the precincts would be more worthwhile if there were more appreciable differences between precinct results. They varied, but not by much.

The clearest news from the election is that council elections are increasingly decided in the Democratic caucus. The only Republican elected since 2014 ran as an independent and won based more on his celebrity status than his policy stance. Hard-core Democrats will tell you there’s a difference between Harry Byrd choosing Democratic winners 60 years ago and 300 people in a caucus choosing them today. It’s debatable, but the election still ended in June, not November.

But take what I say about the Democratic committee with a grain of salt. I was cut off earlier this year from a Democratic Party of Virginia database I’ve been using for 20 years. The cut-off followed some border-line defamatory accusations from a local party official after I wrote a blog post saying the election was decided in June instead of November. I wish I could write that in a way that makes it as humorous as it really is. Maybe silly is a better word. I’m still a member of the committee, but I’m as close to estranged as the committee’s year was to strange.

Back to numbers, again. The 10,410 who voted constitute about 44 percent of the 23,618 active voters registered in the city. That would have been a high turnout number for a congressional or council race before the Donald Trump era, but turnout has been up in every election since 2016. That turnout may be falling off but has trended blue. Jen Lewis only got 35 percent this year in her race for Congress, but four years ago became the first Democrat since 1992 to break 40 percent.

Two years from now we’ll vote for president again, and Congress, and the U.S. Senate, and City Council, and the school board. We may not know what will happen in the city, but it will probably happen in June.

Joe Fitzgerald is a former mayor of Harrisonburg. This column is republished with permission from his blog, Still Not Sleeping.

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3 responses to “Now It’s a Party: Local Elections May Be Decided in June for a While”

  1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    Always enjoy these comments. It is nice to have commentary about politics and issues in a part of the state other than the urban crescent of Richmond, Northern Virginia, or Hampton Roads.

    1. Joseph Fitzgerald Avatar
      Joseph Fitzgerald

      There are four political regions of Virginia: NOVA, Richmond/Central, Tidewater, and Wyoming. I sometimes think we have the best stories.

  2. Proves my point that rank choice voting, if allowed in this race, would not have impacted the results and lead to more consensus/moderate elected leaders. In very liberal Blue areas, voters put more stock on diversity than what the candidate stands for, but a lot of voters do not even know who they are voting for — they color in the circle for whichever candidate the political party they adhere to tells them to vote.

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