Pandemic’s effects shift the democratic process online and adds challenges for local candidates

Image courtesy of the JMU Madison Center for Civic Engagement.

By Bridget Manley, publisher

With three city council seats and city three city school board seats up for election in Harrisonburg this November, the candidates are having to altering their campaign styles — and even how their process for filing to run — in the wake of COVID-19. 

It’s making an already challenging process of running for office that much harder. Whether it’s the operation of a local Democratic Party’s primary or the logistics of individual candidates obtaining signatures to be on the ballot or even deciding whether to run as Republican or independent, the pandemic has sent ripple effects across the local democratic process. 

Harrisonburg Democrats, who planned a firehouse primary to narrow the field to three city council candidates for the November general election, have had to pivot and mount an online and snail-mail absentee voting system in accordance with Gov. Ralph Northam’s stay-at-home order

The primary, which is officially considered an unassembled caucus was originally set to take place May 2. But because the Harrisonburg Democratic Party decided to cancel in-person voting, the party extended the deadline to May 16 to allow people more time to submit their ballots by email and the U.S. Postal Service, said Alleyn Harned, the Harrisonburg Democratic Party chairman. 

Any city Democrat who wishes to vote in the unassembled caucus must call for a mail-in ballot, or visit the Harrisonburg Democratic Party’s website to obtain a ballot.     

“We recognized early that we wanted to create an opportunity for people to have their voices heard without having to come together in person,” Harned said. “This is part of a national model, and a critical labor of all Americans to ensure that for all elections, and especially for the November 2020 elections, that we have full and free access to the ballot and to voter registration services.” 

There are five declared Democratic candidates running for city council, including two running for re-election:  Mayor Deanna Reed and Councilman Richard Baugh are both seeking another term and are joined in the race by newcomers Charles Hendricks, Luciano Benjamin and Laura Dent.

Harned said that since launching the online voting tool, the party already received around 130 ballot requests. 

April 29 virtual town hall forum

Candidates are not the only ones pivoting to online formats to reach voters. 

So voters get a chance to hear from the candidates before the Democratic primary voting process begins, JMU’s Madison Center for Civic Engagement and Dukes Vote along with The Citizen are pivoting to an online format for a virtual town hall forum.

The town hall will feature all five Democratic candidates seeking the three spots for the general election, and will be streamed live on Facebook on Wednesday, April 29 at 7 p.m.

As part of the online format, organizers are accepting questions from residents that can be asked of the candidates during the town hall. 

Signatures a factor in the time of COVID-19

Running as an independent or for a non-partisan office in Virginia means collecting signatures from residents face-to-face and then having those signatures notarized and delivered in person. But the deadline to file for the November ballot is June 9, one day before the governor’s stay-at-home order is set to expire making in-person work tougher, if not impossible. 

City Councilman George Hirschmann, who has previously run and won in Harrisonburg as an independent, hasn’t decided if he will run again but is considering a run as a Republican if he does. 

Hirschmann, who told The Citizen he will be making his decision in the next few weeks, said one factor he is considering is the signature requirement to run as an independent in Virginia.

“I see some people who were considering running as independents in other parts of the country and have to go through the same situation as far as getting signatures, and they are finding it very difficult to be able to do,” Hirschmann said. “You really can’t go door-to-door, and you can’t go where people are gathered, because they are not [gathered].”

Hirschmann said his views often align with the Republican Party. And candidates who run under a political party’s umbrella do not need to collect signatures to run. 

“When I ran the first time, not being familiar with politics and what was going on, on the advice of some friends who said ‘it might be better if you run as an independent since you’re not too sure which side of the aisle you’re on,’ and I try to straddle the aisle on many occasions, but I do find myself leaning to the conservative side,” Hirschmann said. “Whether it would be to my advantage and whether I could win running as a Republican — the label does not bother me — I think a lot of it’s a product of, you know, does that work against me in this liberal city, to the possibility of being elected.”  

School board candidates must get signatures

The Harrisonburg City Public School’s board positions are non-partisan elected jobs. Anyone running for school board, regardless of political party, must obtain 125 voter signatures to get on the ballot. 

Harrisonburg School Board Member Deb Fitzgerald is running for re-election. Channeling her inner Hermione Granger from Harry Potter for how she likes to prepare and organize, she said she knew her spring would be busy, so she got her signatures early in February. 

She received her notification that she’d qualified for the ballot a few weeks prior to the governor’s stay-at-home order.

“When everything was beginning to cascade, I had thought ‘oh my goodness, my paperwork is done,” Fitzgerald said. “I am one of the lucky ones.”

Fitzgerald says she’s feeling empathy for anyone who might be running for the first time. 

“For a person who’s new to the ballot, maybe new-ish to the community and a brand-new name, this would be so hard,” Fitzgerald said. “How do you do that kind of work in a community like ours when people don’t know you, and you can’t go out and talk to them?”

One of the longest serving Board of Education members, Nick Swayne, is weighing the same difficult decision. 

Swayne says that he had initially not planned to run again but has been reconsidering running because of the pandemic. He conceded that one of the biggest obstacles he’s facing is the collection of signatures. 

“Think about getting 125 signatures in a town that’s supposed to be locked down? I’m weighing my options and considering how to collect and witness signatures in a safe and responsible manner,” Swayne said. 

And collecting the signatures is just first hurdle in what will most likely be uncharted and unfamiliar territory in the next couple of months — for both the actual and civic health of the country. 

Connecting with voters while social distancing? 

Richard Baugh is the longest running Harrisonburg City Councilman. He’s also running for re-election and is already brainstorming new ways of connecting with voters during a global pandemic. 

“It’s certainly [going to be] different,” Baugh said. “The only thing I feel certain about in this process right now, is anybody tells you they know how this process is going to unfold — don’t listen to them, because they don’t know.”

“We’ve literally never done it this way before,” Baugh said of the possibility that campaigns might have to be conducted completely — or almost exclusively — virtually.

Baugh said he will be using social media and the internet to connect with voters, but he said those methods aren’t new, and they have helped candidates reach voters successfully in past elections.

“In that regard, it’s not so much that you’ve got to come up with new ways to do things, as it is that some of the old ways have been taken off the table,” Baugh said. “Social media didn’t get invented six months ago, or other alternative means of communication besides a personal visit.  Everybody will probably use whatever works to their strengths and is easiest for them, and we will all go into this social experiment that we are conducting. And we will see what the results are.” 


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