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In central Virginia, there aren’t enough candidates to fill open seats in local governments

A town street with a brick building at the end, with a white garage and sign that reads, “Mineral Fire Department”

Like many small communities in Central Virginia, the Town of Mineral had trouble mustering enough candidates to fill its six-person town council this year.

In the Nov. 8 election, just five names appeared on the ballot — so each was guaranteed a spot on Council. 

“Now the election folks will rack and stack the write-in candidate who got the most votes, and the next and the next,” said Ed Jarvis, Mineral’s mayor-elect. “And then they’ll go to the person with the most and say, ‘Are you willing to serve?’”

Jarvis paused for a moment.

“We have 330 voters, and we couldn’t even muscle up six firm names,” he said.

It’s a common issue. This year in the central Virginia counties in Charlottesville Tomorrow’s voter guide, nine of 20 local races were either uncontested or did not have enough candidates for open positions.

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Stanardsville and Lousia both had uncontested mayoral races. Only one person ran for Greene County Commissioner of Revenue. And Stanardsville and Scottsville joined Mineral with fewer town council candidates than open posts.

Why? Politicians and political scientists say it’s about local party politics and money. 

Local party committees are often weak and struggle to recruit candidates, said Carah Ong Whaley, the academics program officer at the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. It’s a problem that continues to get worse as the country becomes more polarized and parties suck resources out of localities to benefit the national party.

That polarization is contributing in another way — communities are often so starkly either Democrat or Republican that only candidates of the leading party have a chance of getting elected, said David Toscano, a former Virginia House delegate who also served on Charlottesville City Council. The other party candidates rarely try.

But, in the smallest of communities, the issue is often a financial one.

“These are basically volunteer positions,” Jarvis said. “In Mineral, town councilors get $100 a month and the mayor gets $300 a month.”

That means that the only people capable of taking the positions are either retired — like Jarvis who retired from the U.S. Army — or have other sources of income.

“It has always been that way,” Toscano said. “How do you have salaries be high enough so that you can attract people who want to serve who are not either retired or rich?”

For small communities, it can be difficult for taxpayers to support higher salaries for those who hold public office. And, even if they can, that sometimes creates a different sort of problem, Toscano said: career politicians.

“Then you have the other issue of people just getting the job to pay their way in the world,” Toscano said. “It’s called public service for a reason.”

Jarvis feels strongly about service. He previously served on the Mineral Town Council and declined to take the $100 per month salary. As mayor, he intends to forgo compensation as well.

“It’s my civic duty,” he said. “I, personally, have been a public servant my whole life. You do it for the love of country, town or city.”