Changing election day? Roanoke City moves toward rescheduling municipal voting

Published: Oct. 22, 2019 at 12:22 AM EDT
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It's a question Anita Price says she heard from a 12-year-old Roanoke citizen: "How do you feel about being re-elected by only 10 percent of eligible voters?" Her answer: not too good.

It's why, Monday night, Price joined four other members of Roanoke City Council in favor of changing the date of Roanoke's municipal elections. The proposal calls for moving voting for Mayor and City Council from May to November of even-numbered years.

"I think, as somebody said earlier, it's time," said Lea.

The vote was 5-2 in favor of the change, and comes after months of city council debate. Council last took up the matter at a meeting in October, and it was brought back up Monday by Mayor Lea.

During Monday's vote, Lea and Price joined Djuna Osborne, Trish White-Boyd and Joe Cobb in supporting the move.

Those in favor said moving elections will increase voter turnout and awareness. "I just have confidence in the voting public that you can make a decision on who you vote for," said Lea.

At the same time, supporters say changing the date will make it easier for people to get to the polls, as many can't take the time needed to vote in May.

In the most recent May elections, in 2018, just 15 percent of eligible voters showed up at the polls. That compares to 50 percent of eligible voters that November.

Virginia State Delegate Sam Rasoul and Sen. John Edwards also sent in letters supporting the change, and a large crowd cheered the decision in council chambers.

But the move didn't come without opposition. Council Members Melissa Davis and Bill Bestpitch argued scheduling Roanoke's elections alongside congressional and presidential races will increase both the cost of running for office, and the number of uninformed voters.

"How many people are gonna show up in a Presidential election because they really want to vote for somebody for president, and don't even know who's on the ballot?" said Bestpitch.

However, Monday's vote isn't the final say in the matter. Roanoke's City Attorney will need to write an ordinance to make the change official. City council will then have to vote on that ordinance at next month's meeting.

Moving municipal elections may also require a change to the town charter. That would have to be approved by the General Assembly.

Assuming the change is approved, the next municipal election would move from May to November 2020. That means the current city council and mayor would serve an extra six months in their current terms.

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