This year’s town election season has been one for the history books, with social distancing mandates forcing candidates to campaign largely from their computer keyboards and an election day that has been moved back two weeks, and could change again.
Last Friday, Gov. Ralph Northam announced he would use his executive authority to push the May municipal elections from May 5 to May 19 in an effort keep voters from congregating at the polls for at least another two weeks. Virginia law gives the governor the authority to delay elections by 14 days during states of emergencies.
But that might not be the final postponement. Virginia law also gives local governing bodies the ability to petition the Virginia Supreme Court for an additional delay not to exceed 30 days from the original election date. In this case, that would be June 4—six days before Northam’s stay-at-home order expires.
As of Monday, the Purcellville, Lovettsville and Middleburg Town Councils were the only Loudoun councils to vote to make that petition, with Purcellville doing so on April 14 and Lovettsville and Middleburg on April 23.
The Lovettsville Town Council last Thursday voted to petition for that delay and also voted to petition the state to move the elections even farther out, to the end of June.
“We’re feeling that late June would be best,” said Mayor Nate Fontaine.
The Round Hill Town Council on Tuesday night convened in an emergency meeting to discuss whether it would do the same. Mayor Scott Ramsey said that while council members expressed opinions on both sides of the debate, no motion was made to petition the Virginia Supreme Court. He said he felt “there was not a feeling of emergency” to push for a delay. “We are preparing for elections on May 19 and encourage all town voters to request and submit an absentee ballot,” he said.
The Town of Hamilton is the other Loudoun town hosting an election this spring. There, the Town Council voted unanimously on April 13 to support a delay to November, a measure Northam had proposed but lacked approval by the General Assembly.
Hamilton Mayor Dave Simpson, who is the only mayor in those five towns to not be up for re-election this year, said his Town Council does not plan to petition the state Supreme Court, since, he said, a Commonwealth of Virginia staffer told him that Virginia law prohibits two elections from being held within 30 days of each other.
Loudoun General Registrar Judy Brown said on Monday her staff has been searching for such a law but has yet to find it.
If the town elections are held before July 1, that would be in line with the stances of many Loudoun candidates, who have petitioned for elections to be held any date prior to June 30—the date when the terms of four mayors and 18 Loudoun Town Council members expire.
Northam’s order to delay the municipal elections by two weeks came after he requested the Virginia General Assembly delay the elections to Nov. 3, the same day as the 2020 General Election. Last Wednesday, during its annual veto session, the House of Delegates voted narrowly in favor of the governor’s budget amendment to delay the elections, but hours later the Senate voted to kill the amendment.
During Senate deliberations, Sen. Jill Vogel (R-27), whose Senate district includes the Town of Middleburg, said it would be wrong to throw ballots out that have already been cast. She argued there would also be administrative concerns about running two “totally separate elections” on the same day on Nov. 3.
In supporting Northam’s request, Sen. Scott Surovell (D-36), who represents parts of Fairfax, Prince William and Stafford counties, said that delaying the elections to November would protect more Virginians from contracting COVID-19. He asserted that coronavirus is killing 22 Virginians each day—a statistic he bolstered by pointing out that the entire Virginia Senate would be dead from the virus in 48 hours at that rate.
“Pretty soon COVID is going to be the number one cause of death in the United States of America,” he said. “We’re in a pandemic, this hasn’t happened since 1918.”
Following Northam’s announcement that he would delay the elections to May 19, the League of Women Voters voiced its support of the decision. “Even two weeks can give election workers more time to prepare for social distancing at the polls,” stated League President Deb Wake in an April 24 statement, adding that the league is still encouraging absentee voting.
Northam and other leaders are strongly urging town voters to cast absentee ballots.
The last day for voters to request absentee ballots is May 12. Voters must ensure the county Office of Elections receives their absentee ballots by May 19.
Voter turnout in this year’s town municipal elections could be lower than in previous years. And with a relatively small number of voters typically participating in the bi-annual municipal elections, and more voters choosing absentee voting than ever, enforcing social distancing measures at the polls may not be difficult.
Two years ago, the same five Loudoun towns that participated in the elections drew a 31-percent turnout, a total of 2,747 voters. Of those, only 96 voted absentee.
In Purcellville, 1,652 voters cast in-person ballots two years ago—about 130 voters per hour during the 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. polling period.
In Hamilton and Round Hill—where 67 and 66 voters took to the polls in 2018, respectively—it would be possible for one voter at a time to enter the polling place every 12 minutes throughout the day.
Brown said the county Office of Elections will allow only 10 people at a time in each polling place on May 19, including election officers.
This year, as of Monday, 1,880 of the 9,523 registered voters in Hamilton, Lovettsville, Middleburg, Purcellville and Round Hill had requested absentee ballots. That’s 68 percent of the overall voter turnout in 2018. Brown said the county Office of Elections has received 753 of those absentee ballots back.
This story was updated at 4:18 p.m. April 29.