What on earth would political reporters, columnists, pollsters, armchair analysts and other election junkies do in odd years if Virginia consolidated state and federal elections in even- year-only events? What unreliable grist would there be for all the "bellwether" mills that grind out groundless conclusions about presidential popularity or lack of it? New Jersey, Louisiana, Kentucky and Mississippi--without Virginia?
Quite aside from these obviously critical considerations, there are many sound arguments for clinging to the electoral status quo--and not just for tradition's sake--in the Old Dominion. Byrd organization or not, there is something to be said for separating statewide elections from federal coattails--or seat-of-the-pants voting on long ballots, for local candidates who couldn't get anybody's attention when the bigger shots were running at the same time.
These state and local candidates should be able to "stand on their own two legs," says State Senate Majority Leader Hunter B. Andrews, a firm believer in the principle of separate state and local elections in Virginia. In a presidential year or even one in which U.S. Senate and House elections are being held, he asks, "What happens to the poor guy running for town government? That guy is entitled to the full advantages and attention of the voters without all the overriding politics" of other elections.
"I think it is sound," says Andrews, "and it is a concept of the Virginia elections process." With only a few exceptions (Northern Virginia has a few), even the county, city and town elections are held apart from federal or state elections. The short ballot, he submits, is the best ballot.
What about the voters? Though some people may resent or ignore annual calls to the polls and prefer an intense political courtship every other year, there is something to be said for concentrating on one set of elections at a time--not to mention one set of issues. The voter's reasons for selecting someone to represent Virginia in Washington may have little or nothing to do with that same voter's interest in who goes to Richmond to handle state laws or what local policy differences may exist between those seeking to govern the town, county or city.
Sure, when they hold that separate election for deputy assistant to the assistant sheriff for dog tags, it means dreadfully low voter turnouts; but who's to say that all the people who care didn't bother to show up, or that a slightly larger number of voters due to a Senate election on the same day would produce a better decision on the local officeholder?
In the District of Columbia, as in other areas with similar schedules, off-year school board elections have seen relatively low voter turnouts. Yet when newspaper and radio-TV coverage has zeroed in on these contests--or when people have found the issues important enough, turnout has picked up. This last time in Washington, for example, it may well have been that voters were upset enough by the results of their own apathy in the last school board elections that they turned out to turn out an at-large winner of four years ago.
As for the candidates, why should their options be limited by lumping all the contests into one season? The head of a county government may wish to try for a seat in Congress one year and if he or she loses, run for re-election to the local job the next year.
Besides, there does seem to be a correlation between the proximity of an officeholder's next election and the attention that same official pays to constituents. So what if old so-and-so hasn't visited the neighborhood association since the last campaign and it's "just political"? If it takes elections to bring out the best in officeholders and office seekers--or just to bring them out at all--the more the merrier.