IF IT’S November, there’s an election in Virginia. The commonwealth is one of only two states (the other one is New Jersey) that hold what are called off-off-year general elections, with only state legislative and local races on the ballot. This is one of those years.
The benefit of having off-off-year elections in Virginia is that the focus is solely on candidates for the General Assembly and local offices, who otherwise would be lost in the shuffle in gubernatorial, congressional or presidential election years. This is a good thing, because state legislators, county supervisors, commonwealth’s attorneys, sheriffs, school board members, and other local officials will, in many cases, have a more direct effect on voters’ everyday lives than their governor, member of Congress, or even president.
The downside is that with elections in Virginia held every November, year in and year out, the danger of voter fatigue is the greatest in off-off-year elections. Low voter turnout has often been the pattern in such years. For example, in the last off-off-election in 2015, only 29.1 percent of registered voters made it to the polls.
Hopefully that will not be the case this year. All 140 seats in the closely divided General Assembly are up for grabs, and whichever party wins control will get to redistrict the state following the 2020 Census. So there’s a lot at stake this time around.
Virginia’s first gubernatorial election after the state Constitution was updated was held in 1851, and elections for statewide office have continued in odd years ever since. “The conventional wisdom—often repeated in legislative circles—is that Virginia does not want to moor its ship to the federal man-of-war,” University of Virginia law professor Dick Howard told NPR. And changing the election calendar would require a constitutional amendment.
Ironically, in the modern era, the mere fact that Virginia is one of just two states that holds an election a year before the presidential contest has had the opposite effect. Partisans now consider Virginia’s off-off-year election to be a bellwether of voter sentiment nationwide, and both major political parties and their donors have been pouring tens of millions of dollars into local campaigns this year. Legislative races that once could be won on a shoestring now require millions of dollars to adequately compete, a disturbing trend.
In recent weeks, candidates have also brought in national figures such as Vice President Mike Pence and actor Alec Baldwin to fire up their bases. But the attempt to nationalize Virginia’s off-off-year election is not doing residents of the commonwealth much good. Voters have been inundated with messages that serve outside interests, not necessarily their own. Cutting through the noise and clutter and picking the best candidate for the job is a difficult task at best. It’s even harder when voters are bombarded with conflicting information from outside partisans who won’t have to live with the results.
The temptation for some voters is to just chuck it and not vote at all. But voting is a duty as well as a privilege of citizenship. The next General Assembly will consider competing proposals on important issues such as health care, property rights, gun control, transportation funding, minimum wage, taxes, restrictions on abortion, and the Equal Rights Amendment. Local supervisors and school board members will make decisions affecting future growth in the Fredericksburg region and the quality of our local schools, with ramifications that will last generations.
So consider any inconvenience from going to the polls today a small price to pay for having a say in how these and many other issues are resolved over the next decade and beyond.