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The Hurtt Locker: Campaigns and Elections in the Age of COVID-19

The Hurtt Locker is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

(Updated at 3:30 p.m.) Arlington’s civic-minded voters are learning lessons in the art of campaigns and elections in the Age of COVID-19 — lessons in innovation that may well be a model for other jurisdictions and localities as election season heats up across the country.

On Tuesday night the Arlington Young Democrats and the Arlington Democrats co-hosted a Facebook Live debate with the 6 candidates for school board who are vying for the Democratic nod. The hour-and-a-half-long debate fielded questions from viewers that ran the gamut from COVID-19 response to the search for a superintendent to equity in the classroom, The debate was shared dozens of times and viewed by more than 1,600 people at the time of this writing.

Despite the occasional mute-unmute technical issues, an online debate rarely devolves into candidates talking over one another – one of the more annoying aspects of a traditional modern political debate. But the Facebook Live debate is just one way the Arlington Democrats have innovated in response to COVID-19. Democratic voters are endorsing their two school board candidates in an all vote-by-mail caucus, which is running from April 7 to May 7.

The Arlington Democrats write on their caucus webpage, “This change from the traditional in-person caucus process is necessitated by the current public health crisis. The impact of COVID-19 on our community remains uncertain, and timelines for peak medical impact, social distancing, and other repercussions are still unknown.” Readers of ARLnow’s alternating Thursday columns have until next Thursday (May 7) to request a Democratic mail-in ballot for school board, but the deadline to submit that ballot isn’t until May 30.

However, the most interesting electoral race in the Age of COVID-19 will be the Democratic primary for the County Board seat vacated by the late Erik Gutshall in early April. Circuit Court Chief Judge William Newman Jr. ordered the special election for Tuesday, July 7, in compliance with the Code of Virginia.

Arlington Democrats appear to be opting for a more closed process, allowing only the steering committee and county committee to select the nominee in an online instant run-off process May 5-6. According to one report, Democrats opted not to allow every Democrat to run in a free-for-all general election out of concern that a John Vihstadt-style independent would garner enough votes to overtake four separate Democrat candidate constituencies.

Chanda Choun’s official exit from the County Board primary challenge to Libby Garvey and entry into the now four-way ACDC-decided nomination process delays any intra-party scrap with Libby and most certainly diminishes the intensity of the effort. Three of the four Democratic candidates in this special election primary have their own established electoral constituencies — voters who have already cast ballots for them once before — so it will be interesting to see how that factor plays out in behind-the-scenes jockeying.

A win by Arlington School Board member Barbara Kanninen might create another vacancy on the school board, setting the stage for a brief appointment and another special election (concurrent with the November elections) to fill the remainder of her term amid a two-way race for the other two slots.

Republicans plan to establish a nomination process for their potential candidate later this evening. The deadline to file in the special election for the County Board is next Friday, May 8, at 5 p.m. The Virginia Department of Elections published this informative guide on how to file and run in this special election.

What is yet to be determined is what factor a popular (and innovative) independent candidate with an established constituency would play in a two-month-long, low-turnout special election, especially if Arlington Democrats close their nomination process to most Democratic voters after executing a robust mail-in caucus for their preferred school board candidates.

The lessons we will undoubtedly learn through this process should inform other localities and jurisdictions as we continue to navigate the COVID-19 situation, and it may help streamline efforts for future elections here in Arlington. We can learn from the innovative techniques that have already been embraced and those that will likely be utilized by candidates throughout this process.

On a budgetary note, the Arlington County Board is slated to vote on the revised FY 2021 budget this evening. There is still time to read up on the process and the proposal and lobby your County Board members to do the prudent thing by ensuring essential services are shored up while spending on county largesse is delayed until FY 2022. I was pleasantly surprised to see county contrarians, budget curmudgeons, and reliable liberals seemed to agree with this sentiment in the comments of Jane Green’s most recent (well-written) ARLnow column.

And speaking of ARLnow columnists, shout out to Krysta Jones for highlighting the work of Arlington’s community organizations and businesses during the COVID-19 situation in her latest column. As I opined in my last column, institutions like business, community, and education frequently step up where government fails; the present crisis is no exception. Krysta articulates the advantages businesses and community have at this moment, highlighting that even the County government has invested resources into these efforts. We should continue highlighting these successes.

Matthew Hurtt is an 11-year Arlington resident who is passionate about localism and government transparency and accountability. Hurtt is a member of the Arlington Heights Civic Association and was previously the chairman of the Arlington Falls Church Young Republicans. Hurtt prides himself on his ability to bring people of diverse perspectives together to break down barriers that stand in the way of people realizing their potential. He is originally from outside Nashville.

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