The Problem with Local Elections

by Joe Fitzgerald

I once told a candidate for Harrisonburg City Council that ten thousand people would show up to vote and more than half would never have heard of him. Referring to the expense and effort of campaigning, he asked, “Why the Hell am I doing this then?”

The answer might be to give the voters a fighting chance. City Council actions affect day-to-day lives more than decisions made in Richmond or D.C., but the elections themselves are, if not hidden, at least subsumed into races that get more attention.

State and federal Democratic campaigns in one three-year period, 2012-14, hired at least eight people full-time and paid 30-plus months of office rental. Even allowing for the relatively low pay (and brutally long hours) for campaign organizers, that’s somewhere north of $200,000 over that period, just on one side of the political aisle. The Republican side would be close to the same. That rough guess of $400K over three years doesn’t include state senate and delegate races at a quarter million a pop for strongly-contested races.

City Council races bring in and spend much less money and are harder to analyze. For instance, one council candidate had the Planning Commission chair design a website for him and claimed it was a $4,000 donation. The astonishing thing about campaign finance in Virginia is how much is actually legal, not just in what is raised but in how it’s reported.

In Harrisonburg, local races sort of hitchhike on the larger races. Hence the observation that half the voters haven’t heard about the local races. Every 12 years there’s a City Council race with no presidential or U.S. Senate race on the ballot, but even in those years there are more votes cast in the Sixth District Congressional race, which is opposed but one-sided, with the Republican on the ballot having a roughly 60-40 advantage.

That’s about the same advantage a Democrat has running for City Council in Harrisonburg. Since Ted Byrd won in 2014, no Republican has won, and a strong argument could be made that George Hirschman, a Republican running as an independent, won more because of his name recognition as a TV weatherman than for any policy stance. The advantage for a Democratic candidate means local races can be decided in Democratic Party caucuses, which are not only low turnout but can be badly-run. A few hundred people chose the 2022 nominees in caucuses that ignored state and national party rules.

Besides lower turnout, party primaries and caucuses differ from general elections in that the majority of voters show up for a particular candidate. In November some voters will show up not even knowing who or what is on the ballot. In the spring, a candidate can win by contacting 200 people they know. That’s no way to choose the people who’ll be voting on permanent changes to land uses and spending hundreds of millions of dollars.

When there were more daily reporters working in Harrisonburg, the processes and the candidates might have received more scrutiny. That’s not the case now. The voters can only be expected to gather so much information on their own. So while voters as a whole were not paying attention, while Harrisonburg slept, the city wound up with a governing council that doesn’t represent the city’s mainstream and that most couldn’t name.

Joe Fitzgerald is a former mayor of Harrisonburg.

Republished with permission from the Still not sleeping blog.