Emailed and mailed ballots fuel record turnout for local Democrats as they picked their council nominees

Laura Dent (left), Charles Hendricks (center) and Deanna Reed (right) are the three Democratic nominees for Harrisonburg City Council in the November general election.

By Calvin Pynn, contributor

Harrisonburg Democrats had their biggest-ever turnout for a primary over weekend, as that party’s voters selected Mayor Deanna Reed and two newcomers — Charles Hendricks and Laura Dent — as their nominees for the three city council seats on the ballot this fall. 

Alleyn Harned, the Harrisonburg Democratic Committee chairman, said out of 850 requested ballots, the 533 returned during the caucus and counted on Saturday more than doubled the party’s largest previous number of 250. 

However, a surge of ballot requests that came in at the last minute meant that not everyone who requested one had a chance to vote. Harned said about two dozen that came in at the 5 p.m. voting deadline could not be verified in time to be counted. 

“For the entire program, we were able to turn ballots around fairly quickly,” Harned said. “But we did reach a point where there was such a volume that we couldn’t keep up late in the afternoon on the final day of the caucus.”

It’s a circumstance Harned said he regrets. 

“Those requests came in at a time when we were unable to verify assigned codes, and get them out to them,” Harned said. “That error was unacceptable, and it was a major challenge, but it’s also because we went from an in-person caucus to having a totally online system.”

The Committee pivoted to an online caucus in accordance with Gov. Ralph Northam’s stay-at-home order, moving it from May 2 to May 16. To do this, the local party implemented an online and snail-mail absentee voting system. 

To secure identities and avoid repeat votes, each voter received a unique ballot code. The committee unanimously agreed that Caucus Chairman Bill Ney would collect and print all the ballots, which were then counted by three volunteers once the caucus closed. 

The ballots were two sided, with candidates on one side and voter credentials – including name and security code – on the other. Harned said only volunteers counting ballots saw the side with candidate names, while those confirming voter security only saw the side with credentials. 

While the committee eventually intends to shred the ballots to protect voter identities, Harned said they will not do so immediately. He said he couldn’t comment a specific timeframe for when the ballots would be destroyed.    

While Harned said he is open to suggestions to improve this new voting system in the future, he said this experience provides some foresight for the November general election, in case that, too, must be conducted remotely. 

“The lessons here about late voter registrations and the challenges of the system are lessons that we should all be conscious of in November,” Harned said. 

Meanwhile, the three winners of the Democratic primary are already looking ahead to the fall, although it’s still unclear whether Republican or independent candidates will be competing against them for the three out of the five council seats that are up for election this year. . 

The Democratic committee announced the results at 9:40 pm on its Facebook page Saturday. And soon after, Reed issued an announcement, touting city leaders’ recent efforts in the city, such as the publicly available COVID-19 testing earlier that day. 

“I love serving this city,” Reed said in the announcement. “I want to continue serving to serve on council for so many reasons and working with others to make projects and collaborations like this happen again is a major priority.” 

As The Citizen reported Saturday night, Reed was the top finisher out of the five Democrats with 438 votes, showing up on 82% of the ballots counted. Charles Hendricks – co-owner of Gaines Group Architects – finished second with 323 votes (61%), while Laura Dent – a James Madison University adjunct professor and freelance technical writer – finished with 310 votes (58%).

Hendricks – whose campaign focused heavily on small business and sustainable building practices – told The Citizenhe’s optimistic about the potential opportunity to serve on council.

“Harrisonburg is poised for a great revival, and I am looking forward to seeing it unfold and being an active part of that triumph,” Hendricks said. “I am excited to run alongside Mayor Reed and Laura Dent, and the diversity of knowledge and experience we’ll bring to the city alongside Sal Romero and Chris Jones will help launch Harrisonburg forward as a model city for business, sustainability, and inclusivity.”

Dent also praised her fellow candidates, as well as those who did not make the ballot. 

“I’m thrilled to be running with Deanna and Charles — my dream team,” Dent said. “I also want to thank Richard [Baugh] for his 12 years of service and Luciano [Benjamin] for his great ideas for the future.”  

Incumbent Richard Baugh, first elected to City Council in 2008, finished fourth with 234 votes (44%), missing out on a nomination to seek his fourth consecutive term. Local activist Luciano Benjamin, who graduated from JMU one week earlier, finished fifth with 152 votes (29%).

Benjamin, who ran a campaign that focused on environmental protection and support of working-class residents, encouraged supporters to continue fighting for the issues he ran on. He said he plans to stay in Harrisonburg for the foreseeable future and continue his activist work. 

“You all will be stuck with me for a bit longer,” Benjamin said with a laugh. “I look forward to continuing to contribute supporting our workers and youth and continuing to support environmentalist and progressive candidates moving forward.”

Baugh did not immediately responded to interview requests. 

George Hirschmann, who occupies the third seat on City Council that’s up for re-election this fall, previously ran as an independent but has not announced whether or not he will seek another term. He said he expects to make a decision soon. 

“I should be going public by the end of next week,” Hirschmann said in an email to The Citizen on Saturday. “A couple minor details, then smiles or not.”

As of Sunday, no Republican candidates have announced campaigns to run for City Council.     

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