Gov. Ralph Northam’s request for the Virginia General Assembly to consider moving the May 5 municipal elections to Nov. 3, the same day as the 2020 General Election, has prompted opposition from the Virginia Municipal League and concern from many of the 28 candidates running in Loudoun.
In an April 10 letter to the governor, the league wrote that it was “very disappointed” in Northam’s request, which he made in response to the coronavirus pandemic. The association of town government leaders asks Northam to “strongly consider the position of the localities” participating in the May election. In Loudoun, that’s the towns of Hamilton, Lovettsville, Middleburg, Purcellville and Round Hill. All five are VML members.
The league pointed out that moving the election would mean absentee ballots that have already been cast would be thrown out—wasting thousands of dollars already spent to distribute and process them. Many voters this year have chosen to vote absentee to comply with social distancing protocols.
Loudoun County General Registrar Judy Brown said that as of Monday, the county had received 1,213 requests for absentee ballots, which accounts for about 13 percent of the 9,523 registered voters in those five towns.
“Voters across Virginia submitted their choices for local leadership in good faith that their voices would be heard,” the VML letter reads.
The league went on to suggest that Northam’s proposal to keep incumbent officials in office past their normal June 30 term expirations “presents questions of adherence to the Code of Virginia,” and that allowing voters who might be eligible to vote in November the chance to also vote in a postponed local election, regardless of their voting eligibility on May 5, “produces alarming constitutional questions.”
Several of the five mayoral and 23 Town Council candidates in Loudoun have noted their concern regarding a potential move to November, since they won’t know what the General Assembly decides until it meets again on April 22—just 13 days before voting is scheduled to occur.
Incumbent Middleburg Town Councilman Kevin Daly said he agreed with VML’s response to Northam’s request, noting that delaying the May elections to November would be “prolonging the agony.” He emphasized that absentee voting should be voters’ primary way to cast their ballots to assure public safety amid the coronavirus pandemic. Daly said that delaying the elections to November, while not knowing whether the pandemic will subside by that point, would be a poor decision.
“I think it’s reprehensible to put people in jeopardy,” he said. “I’d rather err on the side of safety for the community.”
Round Hill Vice Mayor Mary Anne Graham said that changing the date of the election this late in the game would “only add confusion.” Graham said she’s been telling her constituents to vote absentee, just as the county Office of Elections and Voter Registration has been encouraging voters to do.
Incumbent Middleburg Town Councilman Bud Jacobs said he also agreed with VML’s stance and that, while it’s difficult to disagree with Northam in his decision to suggest postponing the elections to protect public health, “what is not acceptable has been the utter lack of communication from the governor’s office about this issue, and the failure to communicate in advance of the announcement with towns and counties about it.”
“It seems to me the governor’s staff could have reached out to affected jurisdictions with at least a ‘heads-up,’ and it is a significant failure on their part not to do so,” he said.
Purcellville Town Council candidate Erin Rayner said the requested delay concerns her. She referenced Virginia law, which establishes that an election can be delayed by only 30 days at the request of a local government.
“I believe that moving the election date to November threatens the important nonpartisan nature of our town elections,” she said, adding that she would continue to campaign and reach out to as many residents as possible over the next few weeks.
Purcellville mayoral candidate Beverly Chiasson said that pushing the election into November would give her more time to meet with more residents, but that the added time could also make it more difficult for candidates to keep current with town voters.
“It sure does make a long, long time to keep the voters engaged,” Chiasson said.
Purcellville Town Council candidate Mary Lynn Hickey said that in addition to possibly diminishing voter interest, a delayed election might put a strain on campaign resources. She said she hopes that if the election is postponed, it will be pushed to a Tuesday before June 30—the date when the terms of the town’s three incumbent council members and Mayor Kwasi Fraser expire.
“That would be the cleanest solution that doesn’t create new issues arising from having council members serving past the expiration date of their elected term of service,” she said.
Fraser said he recommended to the Office of Elections last month that it consider turning May 5 into an absentee-voting-only election by proactively mailing absentee ballots to all registered voters in those five towns with self-addressed and stamped return envelopes. Fraser said that if the General Assembly does vote to move the election, he would “adamantly oppose discarding any ballots that have already been cast.”
Incumbent Lovettsville Town Councilman Mike Dunlap echoed that sentiment, stating that, if the elections were to be delayed, he would hope every vote is counted and every voter has access to vote.
Lovettsville Town Council candidate Sheryl Frye and Purcellville Town Council candidate Christopher Bertaut said they would run their campaigns as usual until the General Assembly makes a decision next Wednesday. Frye noted that social distancing and stay-at-home orders have made campaigning much different than usual by making door-knocking initiatives or campaign gatherings impossible to pursue.
On the other side of the debate is the entire Hamilton Town Council. Mayor Dave Simpson said the council Monday night unanimously supported the position to postpone the elections until November in an effort to keep the community safe from the spread of coronavirus.
“It’s about the protection of the poll people,” Simpson said, emphasizing that the council’s stance is not politically driven, but simply is a response to communal health. “We are in favor of that.”
Simpson said the Town Council would soon be sending VML and Northam a letter outlining its stance. Only one of the three Hamilton Town Councilmen whose terms expire June 30 is seeking re-election—Vice Mayor Kenneth Wine. Councilwoman Catherine Salter is also running for election to a council seat in a special election.
Daniel Davies, Del. Dave LaRock (R-33)’s legislative assistant, said on Friday that House of Delegates Minority Leader Del. Todd Gilbert (R-15) was working with Northam to amend his request for a postponed May election. Davies said LaRock would most likely vote against moving the election to November.