While Mayor Nikuyah Walker may have broken the mold of party politics in 2017 as the first unaffiliated candidate elected to the City Council in more than 70 years, independent candidates still face an uphill climb in Charlottesville.
And it’s not just because of party politics.
Unaffiliated candidates Bellamy Brown, John Hall and Paul Long and Democrats Sena Magill, Michael Payne and Lloyd Snook are seeking one of three available seats on the City Council in the November election.
Virginia election law is crafted in a way that gives a natural edge to the established political parties through ballot order.
The issue is muddled because, in Virginia, candidates for local offices don’t appear on the ballot with political affiliation, but the parties can nominate candidates for those seats.
State code says candidates for federal, statewide and General Assembly offices are the only ones who will be identified by party affiliation on ballots.
Bob Gibson, a former Daily Progress politics reporter and previous director of the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership at the University of Virginia, said the ballot and campaign are different animals.
“The name on the ballot is a technicality,” he said. “The reality is [whether] they say they’re running as a Democrat or independent.”
Ballot order for local office is determined by the order in which candidates submitted their candidacy paperwork.
The Democratic primary was held June 11, the same day as the deadline for unaffiliated candidates to file the 125 signatures required to appear on the ballot.
To compete in the primary, Democrats were required to file paperwork by March 28. Primary nominees are then automatically put on the November ballot.
Because the Democrats running for the City Council this year all submitted their paperwork at the same time, their ballot order was determined by a random draw.
That earlier deadline virtually guarantees that a candidate affiliated with a party will appear at the top of the ballot unless an unaffiliated candidate gets started ahead of the primary filing deadline.
This could be an issue for Brown, Long and Hall because of the “primacy effect,” which posits that voters are more likely to cast their votes for those at or near the top of the list of candidates.
According to a 2017 study in the political science journal Public Choice, going from last to first on the ballot raises a candidate’s vote share by nearly 10 percentage points.
The ballot order will be Magill, Payne, Snook, Hall, Long, Brown, according to the Charlottesville Registrar’s Office.
In previous elections, some independents have encouraged their supporters to use “single-shot,” or “bullet,” voting to increase the likelihood of at least one independent getting elected. None of the independents has publicly called for use of the technique this year.
In the single-shot method, voters only fill in the box for one candidate, although, for this year’s election, they are allowed to select as many as three candidates.
According to unofficial counts from the registrar’s office, at least 4,050 of the 6,237 ballots cast in the June primary, nearly 65%, had fewer than three candidates selected.
Councilor Heather Hill, a Democrat, supports nonpartisan local elections, saying there’s a “grey area” among municipal candidates and that she wants to evaluate “the steps needed for the city of Charlottesville to move to truly nonpartisan elections for City Council as we do for our School Board.”
About two-thirds of local elections in Virginia and throughout the country are nonpartisan, according to multiple scholarly articles.
Nonpartisan local elections gained traction in the Progressive Era of the early 1900s in response to corruption and one-party rule in big cities, according to a Brooklyn Law School study.
Virginia legislators, however, have consistently attempted to get municipal elections to include party affiliation, but to no avail.
“The local dogcatcher — it doesn’t matter if he’s a Republican or a Democrat. It matters if he can catch dogs,” said appeals court Judge Paul Niemeyer, who oversaw an appeal in an unsuccessful 2015 lawsuit brought by Powhatan County Republicans, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
According to the National League of Cities, those in favor of nonpartisan elections say political parties are “irrelevant to providing services” and elected officials are more likely to cooperate with each otherwithout party politics involved.
Proponents of partisan elections, however, say party labels give voters more information about candidates they know little to nothing about, according to the NLC. They also say party organization helps to provide the means for lower-income people to run for office, versus the lack of built-in support for an unaffiliated campaign.
Democrat Tom Vandever, a former Charlottesville mayor, said running in the party system made sense when municipal elections were held in May. Back then, delegates were selected to vote in a caucus or firehouse primary and the winner was automatically put on the ballot.
The city moved elections to November in 2007 and now all candidates must submit 125 petition signatures to get on the ballot, regardless of party. The signatures that candidates submit for the primary also count for the general election, so only one submission is necessary.
“It’s totally lost its purpose,” Vandever said of partisan elections.
By keeping party designations off the ticket, Gibson said it allows some localities to “have their own local traditions.”
Some areas have candidates who run without party affiliation, but can still be endorsed by parties or partisan officials.
Brown doesn’t see a huge issue with the system to qualify in local elections, but admits he’s a “political junkie.”
“[The forms] aren’t hard at all,” he said. “It’s not rocket science really to get on the ballot.”
However, the system still favors the established parties, Gibson said.
“The parties always have an advantage because they control the system.”