Hoping to strike while voter discontent in Arlington is as hot as it has been in a decade, the Arlington County Republican Committee is considering an effort it believes will teach county Democrats a lesson and, perhaps, reduce their all-powerful status in local elections.
The GOP at its March 27 meeting kicked around a proposal, presented by a law professor and first-time attendee, to launch a petition drive with the goal of moving Arlington from five at-large County Board districts to single-member districts.
The reasoning? Carving up the county into districts would provide a better chance for someone other than a representative of the party’s dominant Democrats to end up in elected office, and also would require elected officials to stay closer to the constituents they serve or risk being booted out.
The proposal generated buzz at the meeting, although the enthusiasm seemed not to take into account the Herculean efforts likely needed to get such a measure on the ballot and then getting it passed by the voters.
And trying to get it done in 2023? The clock already has started ticking, with maybe 90 days left to accomplish the task before this year’s window of opportunity closes.
NO GUARANTEE EFFORT WOULD GET OFF THE GROUND
Add up the procedural steps and legal precedent on the matter (more on that later), and what do you have? “A very tall order,” suggested one top Republican, speaking on conversation on the topic.
A petition drive couldn’t just “wing it” – state law sets out the procedure, starting with a copy of the language being submitted to the Clerk of Court for certification that it meets state requirements. From that point, backers of the proposal have up to nine months to get the requisite signatures, which must total 10 percent of the registered voters at the start of the year in which the petition drive begins. There are about 175,000 registered voters in Arlington, meaning 17,500 valid signatures would be needed, although advocates pressed to go for 25,000 to cover all eventualities.
But getting a measure on the 2023 ballot might be important, as turnout generally is lower due to no big-name races on the ballot, and many in the public are likely to not simply be still irked by the Missing Middle vote of March, but starting to see the real-world implications of its implementation.
Were backers of the idea to dawdle, a vote would be pushed back to November 2024, with the huge turnout a presidential election brings and the thousands upon thousands of voters who rely on the Arlington County Democratic Committee’s sample ballot guiding their decision-making.
(One suspects that the county’s Democratic leadership, happy with the results of at-large elections over the past four decades of their dominance, would likely oppose a change tooth-and-nail should it ever reach the ballot box.)
By one back-of-the-envelope estimate, supporters of a change would need to have their petitions reviewed by the county elections office and in front of the judge by June or July to provide enough time for final review and, potentially, placement on the November ballot.
If the matter comes to the court before June 30, it likely would be handled by Circuit Court Chief Judge William Newman Jr. But Newman is retiring that day, so if it comes later, the decision would rest with whomever was tapped as Newman’s successor as chief judge.
LAST ATTEMPT AT CHANGE ENDED UP PROVING A DEBACLE
In 2010, a coalition that was led by Arlington’s public-safety unions but also had backing of Republicans, the Arlington Green Party and others, launched a petition drive to put a change-of-government referendum on the ballot.
That measure did include moving some, but not all, County Board seats to districts, as well as giving the County Board more power at the expense of the appointed county manager.
That effort got off to a good start, but fell apart when it was determined that one of the signature-gatherers (from a firm hired by the county’s fire-employees union) was a convicted felon and therefore the roughly 2,000 signatures he had collected, though from eligible voters, could not be counted.
But even had they been included, it would not have made a difference. The final tally of 10,815 valid petition signatures ended up being about 3,500 short of the number required that year.
There later were criminal indictments over petition-gathering, though local proponents of the measure were deemed not to have been involved in malfeasance.
Adding to the chaos, there was an apparently inadvertent online posting of the Social Security numbers of petition-gatherers by an anti-referendum group, using copies of petition forms supplied by the office of the clerk of the Circuit Court where that information had not been redacted before being supplied to the group. The clerk’s office apologized for what it said was an oversight in not removing the personal information before turning it over.
OTHER GROUPS HAVE LOOKED AT ENDORSING A PROPOSED CHANGE
Moving from at-large districts to single-member ones was one of the proposals considered by the Arlington County Civic Federation during its recent look at governance issues in the county. The final report, which was adopted by federation delegates, opted not to propose a change to the status quo in that regard.
Proposing a move to single-member districts also has been mulled by the Arlington branch of the NAACP, although a comment made by a county Republican at the party’s March 27 meeting – that the civil-rights group could come together with Republicans in an alliance on the issue – seems unlikely.
From Reconstruction in the early 1870s through to 1932, Arlington (known until 1920 as “Alexandria County”) was governed by a three-member Board of Supervisors, each member occupying a separate district – districts than ran roughly east to west in the north, center and south of the county – and having powers that included legislative, executive and quasi-judicial.
In November 1930, county voters used enabling legislation from the General Assembly to vote in support of a referendum that moved from the Board of Supervisors to a five-member, at-large County Board that would set policy but delegate day-to-day operations to an appointed county manager.
Passage of the referendum set the stage for a November 1931 election for the first County Board members, who formally took office at the start of 1932.
ATTEMPTS AT CHANGE IN 1970s HIT PROCEDURAL BUMPS IN THE ROAD
In 1974, a federal lawsuit was filed, challenging the at-large system as practiced in Arlington as racially discriminatory. Heard by U.S. District Court Judge Albert Bryan Jr. (the same judge who 15 years before had ordered the integration of Arlington Public Schools), plaintiffs lost at the District Court and Circuit Court levels; the U.S. Supreme Court declined to take up the matter.
Shortly thereafter, supporters of a switch to districts filed petition signatures (200, based the Code of Virginia’s requirements at the time) to switch to districts. Both Circuit Court Judge William Winston and a panel of the Virginia Supreme Court ruled against holding a referendum, saying that Code of Virginia section, which had been used in 1930 to set up the County Board, could not be used a second time to change the election format.