City Attorney Bernard Piskho claimed in last week’s city council meeting that no legislation was necessary to implement the change to an elected board unless the city decides to elect members on a basis other than purely at-large or by ward.
He is completely wrong. There is no automatic piece of legislation that will simply spring into existence to conform the Virginia State Code to the results of last month’s election. Someone must introduce a bill and we as a city must have a discussion as to what that bill will entail.
The section of the Virginia State Code which governs the transition from an appointed to an elected board is 22.1-57.3 and nowhere therein does it provide for a piece of legislation to appear, without sponsor, in the relevant committees of the House of Delegates or the State Senate. Such a clause would be patently unconstitutional as our elected representatives are the only ones with such a privilege.
Norfolk wards with racial break-downs.
The transition code section provides options for the staggering of terms and the basis of election districts. That requires a choice and where there is a choice, no automatic decision is possible. This choice can only be made by conforming a section of the code that refers specifically to Norfolk’s school board’s terms and selection process.
To help answer these questions, Mayor Fraim has proposed holding town hall meetings to listen to the community’s concerns sometime in December. That may seem like a short time frame, but given the realities of the legislative calender, it is unavoidable.
Laws in Virginia must be passed through both houses of our General Assembly and signed by the Governor. Even then, without a special emergency clause in the legislation, they do not take effect until, at the earliest, July 1st of the year they were passed.
The filing deadline for candidates wishing to run in the 2016 local elections is the first week in March, so were the legislation to conform the state code not passed this year, we would have to depend on the 2016 General Assembly to pass legislation with an emergency clause in the opening days of the session in order to not find ourselves holding an election that directly conflicts with the state code.
That brings us to the question of electing the school board at-large, by ward, or some hybrid of the two. Norfolk GAINS has laid out their rationale for an at-large system. Councilman Smigiel floated the idea of a hybrid system with some members elected from the superward districts while others are elected at-large.
I propose another idea: copying Virginia Beach. In Virginia Beach there are election districts, but they are for residency requirement purposes only. You must live within the Kempsville district to run for the Kempsville city council or school board seat, but each voter is allowed to vote for their pick of candidates from each district. This allows every voter to have a say in the election of every council and school board member while ensuring geographic diversity among the candidates and eventual winners.
Were Norfolk to go for a purely at-large system, it is likely the school board would be dominated by individuals from certain areas of the city or by those from certain ethnic, racial, or social groups for two key reasons. The first are the obvious demographic and socio-econmic factors. The second is the largely overlooked and misunderstood concept of bloc voting.
In an at-large election where two seats on the school board are to be filled, voters are allowed to cast up to two votes for their preferred candidates. However, they are not required to cast both votes, and this can lead to unpredictable outcomes.
In last month’s Virginia Beach city council election for the at-large seat, incumbent Councilman John Moss was able to best fellow incumbent Brad Martin by virtue of over 20,000 voters casting only one of their available ballots for Moss and Moss alone. This allowed Moss to spend nearly 1/10th that of overall vote winner Ben Davenport and yet still only be a few hundred votes behind.
This can be proven mathematically by comparing the overall votes for at-large candidates to the overall votes for one of the district seats multiplied by two.
Ben Davenport – 47,853
John Moss – 47,659
Brad Martin – 39,032
George Furman – 11,867
Total Votes – 146,411
Barbara Henley – 65,092
Pieri Burton – 19,741
Total Turnout – 84,833
84,833 x 2 = 169,666
169,666 – 146,411 = 23,255
As you can see above, had every voter who cast a ballot in the Princess Anne district race cast both of their votes in the at-large race, there would be over 23,000 more for votes cast for one of the 4 candidates. That easily could have changed the outcome of the race and the same effect will certainly play out in Norfolk’s school board elections should we go for a strictly at-large system.
Now it is possible that some voters simply chose to cast no ballot at all for the at-large race after voting in the Princess Anne race, but the percentage of those voters as a whole is negligible. There is, on average, a 10-20% drop-off between those who voted for top of the ticket races, in this case US Senate and US Congress, and those who vote for down ballot races such as city council and school board. That’s why I chose the Princess Anne district race as a comparison and not the US Senate race. Drop off voting variation among local races is on average only a small fraction of that amount.
Ward 5 close up.
In Norfolk we have our elections in May, so drop-off voting is not really an issue. Those that show up at the polls for a May election are the most committed and knowledgeable among the electorate. If they chose to come to the polls but fail to cast all their available votes in at-large race, it will almost certainly be because of a conscious decision to affect the outcome of the election. This was a serious issue in Norfolk before our current ward system and was one of the factors that led to the ruling in the Collins Case that a purely at-large system was discriminatory. Copying Virginia Beach’s system will solve that problem while ensuring geographic diversity among the candidates and that all Norfolk residents will have a hand in choosing every member of our new school board.