For the first time in Leesburg’s history, candidates for town offices appeared on the November ballot Tuesday — and voters responded in record numbers by reelecting Mayor Kristen Umstattd and the three incumbent Town Council members.
Supporters of moving Leesburg’s town elections from May to November had hoped that adding the races to a high-profile ballot would encourage greater voter participation.
Those hopes were realized Tuesday, when 72 percent of the roughly 27,000 registered Leesburg voters cast ballots for town office candidates, Loudoun County Registrar Judy Brown said. It was an overwhelming increase over previous turnout rates that have generally fluctuated between 8 percent and 15 percent in May elections.
Umstattd was elected to her sixth term with a little more than 12,000 votes, soundly defeating challenger Linda Shotton, who had about 6,200 votes.
Incumbent David S. Butler received the most votes — about 8,500 — among the Town Council candidates. Thomas Dunn followed with a little more than 6,600 votes, and the third incumbent on the ballot, Katie Sheldon Hammler, was also reelected, with a little more than 6,300 votes.
Newcomer candidates Jim Sisley, Dwight Dopilka, Robert J. Zoldos, S. Ann Robinson and write-in candidate Joe Mydlinski trailed, without enough support to unseat the veteran council members.
The effort to shift Leesburg town elections from May to November was led last year by Leesburg resident Barbara Bayles-Roberts, who launched a petition that collected more than 3,000 signatures. The subsequent referendum passed easily last November, with about 6,000 votes.
After the measure passed, the Leesburg Town Council drafted an amendment to the Town Charter, specifying that the local races must continue to be nonpartisan. Despite the fact that candidates may not officially align themselves with either party, the local Democratic and Republican committees made endorsements, and the names of their preferred candidates were included on sample ballots handed out at the polls Tuesday.
Of the winning incumbents, Butler and Umstattd were endorsed by the Loudoun County Democratic Committee, Dunn was endorsed by the Loudoun County Republican Committee, and Hammler did not seek endorsement.
Butler, who had opposed moving the town elections to November for fear that the down-ballot races might become unnecessarily affected by partisan politics, said he was pleased with the outcome of the election and did not feel that party politics played as strong a role as he had feared.
“Having a greater turnout was a very good thing. It was nice just to see so many people coming to the polls voting for town elections. And while there certainly was a partisan affect on the race, it wasn’t as pronounced as I had expected,” he said.
Looking at the breakdown by precinct, he said, it was clear that Democratic town candidates did better in Democratic-leaning polling places, and likewise for Republican candidates. But the affect was not overly significant, he said.
“My concern is that the partisan effect would be overwhelming, but it wasn’t,” he said.
In the weeks preceding the election, the majority of the public’s attention was inevitably focused on the presidential race and other higher-profile Senate and congressional contests — particularly in Loudoun County, which was predicted to be a bellwether jurisdiction for swing-state Virginia.
Despite that, Butler said he thought Leesburg voters, with the help of local media profiles of town candidates, were able to educate themselves about the relevant issues.
“We ended up with all the incumbents winning, which frankly I didn’t expect, but that’s okay,” Butler said. “I think it says a lot of the people of Leesburg to be as informed about the town as they are.”
Before Leesburg’s first November town election, there was much debate about what the impact of the date switch might be — whether voters would feel more inclined to vote along party lines, or whether incumbents might have an unfair advantage with greater name recognition.
Brown said that although the desire to foster greater participation in the town elections was certainly realized, it is challenging to determine whether the votes truly reflect a deliberate and informed electorate.
There were numerous blank votes in the council and mayoral races, she noted, as well as more than 7,000 under-votes in the council contests, indicating voters who did not vote for three candidates.
“There were quite a few who didn’t vote at all, and numerous ballots where people voted for one candidate but not others,” she said.
Brown said that Butler, who was listed first on the ballot, received about twice as many votes as any other candidate.
“What may have happened there is that everybody thought they could vote for not more than one,” she said. “If people don’t know who the people are, they typically vote for the first three people on the ballot and don’t worry about the others. . . . The town wanted to get more people to participate, but whether that’s a good thing or not is hard to say.”
In their coming terms, Umstattd and the Town Council will have many issues to address — including traffic improvements, taxes, water rates, incentives to encourage local business development, and an ongoing discussion with the county Board of Supervisors about how best to handle the expansion or possible relocation of the Loudoun County Courthouse.
Umstattd said that it was humbling to be reelected and that she was pleased to see that the vast majority of voters had taken the time to participate in the town races as well as the high-profile contests.
“We’ve been reelected to keep the town in good shape and focus on the issues that make people’s lives easier, so we’re going to do that,” she said.