As the Charlottesville Democratic Party prepares for its second-ever firehouse primary, party officials are optimistic that the approach will continue to generate higher voter participation than did nominating contests in past years.
In the 2009 primary , 1,609 Democrats voted to nominate City Council and sheriff candidates.
Jim Nix , co-chairman of the city’s Democratic Party, said that the party is currently planning for more than 3,000 voters to participate Aug. 20.
“Surely, there will be more [voters] this time because of the greater number of candidates and higher level of interest in the race,” Nix said.
In 2009, the party adopted the firehouse primary, technically known as an “unassembled caucus,” to nominate candidates for the general election. Through this process, voters are given a 10-hour window to cast their ballot at a single polling location, thus avoiding a lengthy mass meeting.
While party officials and voters debated at the time whether to change the process, concerns were raised about the amount of money candidates would need to raise in order to reach a broader voting base.
Charlottesville Mayor Dave Norris said that some of his reservations about the system have been addressed and that he now prefers this approach.
“So far we have avoided the situation that some of us feared might occur, where the new open primary system could drive candidates to get into a costly advertising war with each other, to the detriment of candidates who don’t have as much personal wealth,” Norris said.
“I would not want to see us revert to holding nominating conventions where a tiny number of party enthusiasts determine the nominee,” he added.
Nix explained that the party has taken steps to address the concerns raised in 2009.
“The fact that we have seven City Council candidates and three clerk of court candidates with diverse backgrounds, conducting vigorous campaigns, is evidence that we have not placed too many obstacles in their way,” Nix said.
Nix said the party would put out an informative mailing about the candidates to voters, conduct video interviews, host a meet-and-greet with candidates and post information on its website.
“None of the candidates have shared details of their campaign strategies but it appears that most, if not all, are using the full range of tools for voter contact, including door-to-door canvassing, phone calls, mailings and house parties,” Nix said.
Accompanying the switch to an unassembled caucus was the adoption of an instant runoff voting system.
Rather than choosing a single candidate, voters rank all candidates in order of preference. Voters will rank the City Council candidates in order, one through seven, and the clerk of court candidates, one through three.
Rob Richie, executive director of FairVote , a Washington nonprofit that advocates for the use of instant runoff voting, praised the use of the practice in Charlottesville.
“In the context of Charlottesville nominations, what instant runoff voting does is allow far more Democratic voters to participate in the decision of their nominees,” Richie wrote in an email. “I gather in Charlottesville [that] can be tantamount to winning in the fall, so all the good to get more people involved.”
Richie noted that Charlottesville is one of the few localities that utilizes instant runoff voting to nominate or elect more than one candidate.
“It’s also done in some elections in Australia,” Richie wrote.
After the polls close, tellers representing each campaign will begin to count the ballots. Initially, City Council candidates will receive one vote for every time they are placed as a first, second or third choice on the ballot. In order to be nominated, a candidate must receive a majority of the vote.
When a candidate receives enough votes to be nominated, they are removed from consideration on the ballot, then the votes are recounted for the remaining candidates. In the event that one candidate is nominated in the first round, the tellers will only re-tally the top two preferences to determine if another candidate has received a majority with remaining votes. If not, then the candidate who has received the least amount of votes is also removed from consideration.
The runoff process continues until, in the case of the council race, three nominees are selected. In the case of a tie, results will be determined by lot.
Nix also emphasized the importance of ranking all seven candidates.
“The majority vote requirement is one way of ensuring that [candidates] have widespread support,” Nix said. “By asking the voters to rank their choices, we are able to use the instant runoff method to determine which candidates are supported by a majority of voters casting ballots.”
All registered voters in Charlottesville may participate and each will be required to sign a Democratic Declaration Form, pledging their support for the party’s candidates and the principles of the Democratic Party. The Democratic primary will be held from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Aug. 20 at Burley Middle School.