With the city election just days away, candidates are gearing up for the final days of Election 2006. All seats on the City Council are up for grabs, with six available seats for the top vote getters. The outcome of the election will be dramatic, determining everything from the city’s tax rate to long-term planning. Yet very few Alexandrians are expected to make it to the polls.
Elections officials expect about 18,000 voters — a handful of the city’s 78,000 registered voters in a city with 108,674 residents over the age of 18. According to Tom Parkins, the city’s registrar, the low turnout is a function of a comparatively unexciting ballot.
“I’d say that it will be 23 percent of registered voters of less,” Parkins said. “What really brings voters out are hot mayoral elections.”
In 2003, a three-way race for mayor pitted three well-known city leaders against one another: Democrat Bill Euille, Republican Bill Cleveland and independent Townsend Van Fleet. That election brought about 27 percent of the city’s registered voters to the polls. This year, Mayor Euille is running unopposed and Van Fleet is campaigning as a Republican for a seat on the City Council — a race that election officials believe will produce a smaller percentage of voters than three years ago.
“We’d like to see a higher turnout,” said Chris Marston, chairman of the Alexandria City Republican Committee. “We think people are really fed up with the property tax growth, and I’m optimistic that we’ll get more than one seat on the council.”
But Susan Kellom, chairwoman of the Alexandria Democratic Committee, disagrees. She says that the low turnout may be a sign that voters prefer to stay with the status quo — an all-Democratic City Council.
“People are pleased with the way things are going,” Kellom said. “Voters tend to come out when they are unhappy, and right now most people are happy with the direction of the city.”
One reason for the low turnout may be timing.
“Most people aren’t as keyed into electoral politics in the spring as they are in the fall,” said Matthew Smyth, director of communications for the Virginia Center for Politics. “You go from a big presidential election in 2004 to a big gubernatorial election in 2005, and some people experience burnout.”
Smyth said that while the attention of voters is often directed at national and statewide elections, decisions made at a local level usually have more influence on their lives. Here in Alexandria, the City Council regularly makes decisions that influence the day-to-day lives to city residents. Yet voters seem mostly indifferent.
THE CURRENT at-large system of representation on City Council was created in 1953. Before that, the city had a series of different electoral configurations — with each reform bringing a greater sense of citywide civic participation.
In the early days of Alexandria’s history, the city was controlled by an appointed board of trustees that ran the city like a corporation. By 1780 — as the American Revolution was drawing to a close — the city decided to hold public elections in which the white, male property owners could chose a “common council.”
“From 1780 to 1843, Alexandria’s mayor was elected by council until a February 1843 amendment to the city charter provided for his direct election by freeholders,” wrote city historian Michael Miller in a history of Alexandria’s officialdom. “The mayor, recorder and four aldermen also functioned as a Court of Hustings with power to try civil and criminal actions whose penalty did not exceed ten pounds or one thousand pounds of tobacco.”
The city’s 1874 charter created a 16 member common council that included four members from each of the city’s four wards and an eight-member “board of aldermen” that included two members from each ward. This was a time when the city was very restrictive about voter participation, and the 1874 charter includes a long list of residents who were forbidden from voting — including “idiots and lunatics” as well as anyone who “fought a duel with a deadly weapon.”
Later, as the city became less restrictive about who could vote, city leaders decided to place less of an emphasis on neighborhood representation. The city’s 1940 charter created a new system that included six wards, with one representative from each ward as well as three at-large seats. By 1953, the old ward system was seen as divisive — with some neighborhoods being pitted against other neighborhoods. That’s when the city’s current system was created to give the city leadership that was purportedly concerned with the well-being of the entire city.
“The ward members had selective interests,” said Frank Mann, who was first elected to the City Council in 1951. “That’s why I was in favor of the change to an at-large system, which mean that everybody in the city was presumably equal."
Mann says that the expected low turnout doesn't necessarily help the Democrats.
"I think the Republicans have the best chance they've ever had," Mann said. "But it's up to them to convince the apathetic voter to get out there and vote."