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Editorial: What we know, what we don't, about Roanoke's historic council election

Editorial: What we know, what we don't, about Roanoke's historic council election

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Roanoke voters made history this week and we’ll never fully understand how.

Well, we do know how in one way: For the first time, Roanoke elected a Black majority to city council. It’s hard to overemphasize how significant this is. Here’s a white-majority city in the South that elects council members at-large, which is usually seen as a method that puts minority candidates at a disadvantage, yet that clearly did not happen. There may be other places with that distinction but, if so, there won’t be many. Furthermore, this appears to be a vote of confidence in the way the city is being run rather than some upheaval in city politics. Two of the four winners were incumbents, three of the four were endorsed by the city’s major business organization, and the fourth was a longtime figure in city government. The candidates who most clearly called for a change in the city’s direction all lost.

In a normal year, we could explain exactly how this happened — who got their votes in which parts of the city. That would help winning candidates understand where their support came from, it would help losing candidates understand where they fell short, it would help future candidates plot their strategies, it would help voters understand how this historic event came to be. But this isn’t a normal year.

In this year of the pandemic, some 65% of the city’s votes were cast absentee. That means when they were counted, they were counted as part of “the central absentee precinct” and not part of the voters’ home precinct. That means when we look at the precinct-level results, we only see the tallies for votes cast at the traditional polling places on Tuesday. That doesn’t affect the totals but it does mean we can’t say such-and-such a candidate ran strong in this precinct and weak in that one because we’re only seeing part of the picture. It’s a little like the old George Carlin joke: “And here’s a partial score: Philadelphia 3.”

Let’s look at what we do know — and then what we don’t.

Sherman Lea, the city’s second Black mayor, was reelected over former Mayor David Bowers 20,955 to 18,845. That’s 52% to 47% with nearly 1% for write-ins. We can assume that Lea ran strongly in the city’s Black precincts, but we don’t know how strongly. Regardless, he had to get votes from a lot of white Roanokers to win — and did. But which neighborhoods? We don’t know. Were there predominantly white precincts where Lea outpolled Bowers or did he just run a close second outside northwest Roanoke? We don’t know. We’d know a lot more about our city if we did. All we can say is that 2,030 Roanokers who voted in the presidential race didn’t cast a ballot in the mayoral race — and that Lea obviously didn’t get the vote of every Biden supporter. Biden took 61.5% in the city. We don’t know that every Donald Trump voter backed Bowers, but if they did, Bowers did get a decent share of the Biden vote — just not enough to win.

Now let’s look at the council races, where eight candidates were seeking three seats. The final tally, with the winners starred:

Trish White-Boyd (D) 21,300*

Robert Jeffrey (D) 12,852*

Stephanie Moon (I) 12,539*

Peg McGuire (R) 11,074

Peter Volosin (D) 10,284

Kiesha Preston (I) 9,647

Maynard Keller (R) 9,127

Cesar Alberto (I) 3,800

The first thing we notice here is that White-Boyd polled more votes than Lea did in the mayoral race. The second thing we notice — when we dig into the numbers — is that in the day-of voting she finished in the top three in every precinct. Given that Democrats seemed to prefer early voting and Republicans day-of voting, it seems safe to say that White-Boyd ran strongly citywide, a notable achievement for any candidate, Black or white. In some predominantly white precincts — such as Highland and Old Southwest-Wasena — White-Boyd finished first in the early voting. Given the results, she probably finished first in others, as well, but we can’t say for certain.

Next, notice the big drop-off between White-Boyd and the other candidates. It’s clear that a lot of voters — even a lot of Democratic voters — split their tickets. It’s clear from the day-of voting that voters in many Black precincts voted for only Black candidates. Volosin, the only white candidate on the Democratic council ticket, finished fifth in Eureka Park, fifth in Forest Park, fifth in Lincoln Terrace, and so on. Instead, voters there cast ballots for White-Boyd, then used their other two votes on some combination of Jeffrey, Moon and Preston, with that being the order of finish in each of those precincts in the day-of voting. We can only tell so much from those day-of votes, since they don’t represent most of the votes cast, but we can tell some things. Volosin never finished higher than fourth in any of the city’s precincts. Given the overall results, it’s pretty obvious that a lot of Democratic voters — both Black and white — abandoned him to vote for either Moon or Preston, both of whom had originally sought the Democratic nomination before running as independents.

The key to winning an at-large election is consistency across the city. That’s what typically dooms Republicans, who run well in Republican-leaning precincts, then get wiped out in Democratic precincts, especially the predominately Black ones. Moon probably benefited from that consistency. We know from the day-of voting that she ran third (good enough for win) in the Black precincts and then second, behind White-Boyd, in Highland and third in Old Southwest-Wasena, both white precincts. And we know from the overall precincts that she clearly won. The rest is just guesswork. As the longtime city clerk, recently retired, she was well-known throughout the city and that surely helped.

When council Democrats moved council elections to November to coincide with a presidential election, it was assumed that would disadvantage non-Democrats. Did it? One independent won and another came close in the mayor’s race. Both were well-known, though, and both have Democratic ties, so it’s not a clear-cut case. However, McGuire’s fourth-place showing — ahead of a Democratic nominee — is notable. No Republican has won a council seat since 2000. Here’s where the lack of precinct data prevents analysis: Were there any precincts where she finished third, second or even first? Republicans had called for a ward system. If there had been, might she have won a council seat? We’ll never know.

Updated Nov. 10 to add vote totals for Maynard Keller.

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