Sena Magill victory party

Democratic Charlottesville City Councilor-elect Sena Magill celebrates her election win Tuesday at Three Notch’d Brewery.

Sena Magill won’t let you think it’s all about her.

She beat the record number of votes received by any one candidate, set in 2017 by Mayor Nikuyah Walker, by 494 votes, but Magill wasn’t the only one to pass Walker’s mark.

Democrat Lloyd Snook, who will also take a seat on the five-member council in January, received 8,133 votes and now holds the second-most votes in city history.

But if you ask the newly elected Charlottesville City Councilor about her victory in Tuesday’s election, she’ll give the credit to others.

“I think this is much more about people mobilizing for the 2020 election and that this is a lot more about people realizing that they need to get out there and vote — that their vote does matter,” Magill said. “People were paying attention, but I think that has a lot more to do with 2016 than anything I did.”

Historic voting

Tuesday’s election was what political experts call an “off-off year election,” when no federal contest or statewide office is on the ballot. Turnout is typically low.

It was the fourth such election since the city moved municipal elections from May to November in 2006.

Magill and Snook shattered the previous vote total record for off-off year elections, set when Democratic Councilor Wes Bellamy received 4,688 votes in 2015.

In Tuesday’s election, 13,125 voters, or 43% of those registered, cast a ballot. Magill was selected on 64% of ballots cast and Snook was chosen on 62%.

In 2015, the last off-off year election, 6,049 voters, or 23% of the city’s registered voters, cast a ballot. Bellamy was selected on 77% of them.

The 2017 election saw 16,548 voters, or 57.6%, cast a ballot. Walker, an independent, was selected on 48% of them.

Bob Gibson, a former Daily Progress politics reporter and previous director of the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership at the University of Virginia, said resistance to President Donald Trump likely pushed turnout.

Democrats took control of both houses of the Virginia General Assembly for the first time in more than 20 years and Gibson said that opportunity pushed voters to the polls.

“Forty-three percent is not a shoddy turnout,” he said. “I don’t think it was all the City Council election that did it. I think Trump benefited Democrats up and down the board.”

Democratic delegate-elect Sally Hudson, of Charlottesville, said Tuesday’s General Assembly and City Council races had “different dynamics.”

“A lot of what carried the flip in the General Assembly was shifts in suburban voters,” she said. “Charlottesville is a highly engaged electorate and I think a lot of times our electorate is locally focused.”

Records Set

Magill, Snook and Bellamy are among 10 people to ever receive more than 4,000 votes in an off-off year election and 17 who have exceeded that vote count in the city’s general election history, records show.

Magill and Snook are the only people to get more than 8,000 votes for City Council in the century since 1919, when there were fewer than 2,000 registered voters in the city. Seven have exceeded 7,000 votes in that time, including Democratic Councilor-elect Michael Payne, who received 7,816 in Tuesday’s election.

Independent Bellamy Brown, who got 5,736 votes this year, and Democrat Amy Laufer, with 7,711 in 2017, are the only people on record to get more than 4,000 votes and not win a seat on the council.

Republican Laurence Brunton was the first to get more than 4,000 votes, with 4,185 in 1976. He remains the only Republican to surpass that tally.

After 1976, no one would reach 4,000 votes again until 1992, when Democrat Tom Vandever received 4,086.

The mark would remain untouched until 2009, when Democrats Dave Norris and Kristin Szakos exceeded 5,000 and higher vote counts became more common.

A century ago, Charlottesville City Council elections were much more mundane.

Prior to the 1960s, only about 500 people cast ballots in City Council races and numbers were fewer than 100 in 1942, according to archives.

Walker remains the only independent candidate to win a seat on the dais since 1948. Walker and Brown are the only unaffiliated candidates to surpass 4,000 votes.

Gibson said Walker’s election was an anomaly and that her victory and high vote count were likely due to their proximity to the deadly 2017 Unite the Right rally.

Although 2019’s was the first full election cycle since the rally, Gibson said it remains difficult for an independent to win a spot on council, especially in an election with three seats up for grabs.

In elections where voters can select more than one candidate, independent candidates typically urge their supporters to cast a “single-shot” ballot, in which voters only select one name although they can choose more.

Political observers have said that Walker likely benefited from such a method. It’s unclear how many single-shot votes were cast on Tuesday, but 5,446 did not include votes for three candidates, according to the registrar’s office.

Gibson said some voters may hesitate in an election with three seats available because they’re giving up two votes and control of the council is up for grabs.

“It’s harder for independents,” he said.

New opportunities?

With a Democratic-controlled General Assembly and governor’s office, the new City Council could have new opportunities to pass progressive policies.

“I think it makes a huge difference and it totally changes what we can do on City Council,” Payne said. “I think the election was a great night for progressives, both in Charlottesville and across the state.”

For example, Hudson plans to reintroduce a bill presented in the last session by outgoing Del. David Toscano, D-Charlottesville, that would allow localities to decide the fate of Confederate statues.

The City Council’s vote to remove the statues of Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson from downtown parks is seen as a flashpoint for the deadly events of 2017. That vote led to a lawsuit, which the city recently lost, but plans to appeal.

Toscano’s bill died in a subcommittee, but Hudson is “cautiously optimistic” that it can be passed in the 2020 General Assembly session.

“I think that city residents are ready for serious solutions to the broader dimensions of structural inequality beyond these flashpoint issues like the statues,” Hudson said.

Although the councilors-elect were optimistic about the flipped statehouse, Snook cautioned that some things could remain business-as-usual.

“We can’t assume that just because there’s going to be a Democratic majority that now all of the sudden things are going to change,” he said.

Magill said she hopes legislators will put more money from the Virginia Lottery into education. Only about 40 percent of the proceeds are sent to schools and allocations are based on the number of students in a school division.

She also emphasized measures to address climate change, invest in clean energy and increase the state’s minimum wage, which would help the area’s affordable housing needs.

Magill was in shock after hearing the results on Election Day, she said. On Thursday, she filled out paperwork at City Hall. Reality began to set in.

“Paperwork always makes it feel official,” she said. “I’m excited to tackle this new challenge.”

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City hall reporter

Nolan Stout is a reporter for The Daily Progress. Contact him at (434) 978-7274, nstout@dailyprogress.com, or @nstoutDP on Twitter and Facebook.

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