Election 2015: James City County election comes with high stakes

The Virginia Gazette

County and city taxes pay for an array of services including emergency responders, schools, streets and sidewalks.

So when politics is concerned, local elections are where the rubber meets the road.

With a flurry of important issues facing Williamsburg-James City County, political experts agree the outcome of the November election will have tangible consequences.

But finding out how many people will take notice of an election that lacks high-profile state and federal races is up for debate.

If history is any indicator, turnout will likely be low.

Quentin Kidd, a political scientist at Christopher Newport University, said turnout will likely to stay in the 20 percent to 30 percent range without a major candidate on the ballot for a top state or federal office.

A hotly contested board of supervisors race may push the turnout in James City County slightly higher, Kidd said, as a majority of seats on the board are up for election.

Some board of supervisors candidates are using the election as a referendum on a controversial tax increase passed by the five-member board this past spring.

"With the James City County demographic it's probably a little bit more older, a little bit more educated, a little bit more higher income, than the Peninsula as a whole," Kidd said. "They pay more attention to things … turnout could very well go up there."

"The effect on the voters, on the community, is more direct as a result of the candidates who win in local races and certainly more than the candidates that we have running for president or for governor, even for General Assembly to some extent," said Linda Rice, president of the League of Women Voters of the Williamsburg Area.

"We have major issues facing the county, not the least of which is funding for our schools. Also, how are we planning for the distinct possibility of needing more water, which we have to pay for from the city of Newport News?" she said.

Rice said voters are paying close attention to issues like stormwater management and infrastructure repair.

"You're hoping to find local candidates that are willing to collaborate with each other," Rice said.

Amanda Johnston, chairwoman of the James City County Republican Committee, said the premise that turnout is historically low in elections that don't have a high-profile candidate doesn't necessary apply to competitive board of supervisors races.

"The Roberts District race between John McGlennon and Jack Fraley is a good illustration of this. In 2011, 3,827 voters cast ballots in their race, which was decided by just 28 votes," wrote Johnston, in an email to the Gazette.

"Two years later, Roberts polling places registered 2,120 votes for Terry McAuliffe and 2,137 votes for Ken Cuccinelli, a difference of just 17 votes," she wrote referring to the November 2013 gubernatorial race.

"As our nominees have learned campaigning door-to-door, voters are paying attention very closely," Johnston said. "The tax increase has definitely spiked voter interest and will likely result in a robust turnout."

"What happens at the local level has a real and direct affect on the quality of life in our community," said Jeff Ryer, a spokesman for Sen. Thomas K. "Tommy" Norment, R-James City. "James City voters clearly understand this, which is why the 'drop off' between this cycle and the gubernatorial is comparatively low in our districts with competitive supervisor and school board contests."

But Jen Tierney, chair of the James City County Democratic Committee, said turnout would not be the most important factor.

"I think you do see pockets of higher turnout in some places in the county, said Tierney. "I think it comes down to who the candidates are and what they're talking about rather than the turnout. Turnout is not going to determine these local races. Issues and where these candidates stand is what's going to determine the outcome. If there's ever a race where voters cross party lines, it's local races, it's School Board and Board of Supervisors races."

James City County's 2011 turnout – during an election deciding statewide General Assembly races -- was just below 34 percent, nearly six points above the statewide average that year, according to A.J. Cole, General Registrar for James City County.

While turnout was higher than the statewide average, it paled in comparison to the next year, 2012, where 77.6 percent of voters showed up. In 2013 and 2014, which featured contests for governor and U.S. Senate respectively, about 50 percent of registered voters showed up to the polls.

"The more competition there is on the ballot, the more it will drive voter registration," Cole said. Despite the competitive races this year, Cole said he doesn't expect turnout to go much above the 30 percent range.

"The contestants in these battles haven't been able to generate a lot of buzz," he said. "The presidential debates are still kind of overshadowing a lot of the local stuff right now."

Bogues can be reached by phone at 757-345-2346.

Election coverage

We have more issues-based coverage planned in the run up to election day, Nov. 3:

Sept. 26: Taxes

Oct. 3: Water

Oct. 10: Smart growth

Oct. 17: Quality of life

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