Did the Progress Cheat? Critics blame paper for Schilling victory
Can a single newspaper article swing an entire election?
Yes, according to some local critics who blame an election-day piece for Republican Rob Schilling’s City Council victory. A May 7 Daily Progress article by Jake Mooney described a long-shot tactic some Republicans were planning.
In a race with two open seats, single-shot voting is a strategy of voting for only one candidate. That way, a minority party– the Republicans, in this case– can avoid diluting its fewer numbers by not adding votes to another candidate with a larger voter base– i.e., a Democrat.
In the wake of the first Democratic loss in 16 years, where 1,240 ballots– nearly a third of the voters– were cast for only one City Council candidate, Mooney has become a whipping boy in some quarters for the Dems’ surprising upset.
“I’ve been called more names this week…” says Mooney, who otherwise declined to comment on this story.
As Democrats gathered at the Nook for election results on election night, defeated Dem Alexandria Searls told Mooney that she thought his article was out of line.
“It’s like an instruction manual, and I had no chance to contribute,” she says. “I thought this was really questionable ethics.”
On Charlottesville’s top online forums– cvillenews.com and loper.org– a vocal faction railed against the article and alleged a Schilling bias by the Progress and Mooney. On Loper.org, Ben Thacker-Gwaltney asked if any City Dems were going to talk to the editors at the Progress “since they basically ran a voters' guide on election day for How to Elect Rob Schilling.”
Blaming journalists for Searls’ 84-vote loss seems like a witch-hunt in the eyes of others. “If the Democrats just had one candidate, I hope they’d do the same," says Democrat Waldo Jaquith.
Cooler heads on his cvillenews.com have suggested that the Mooney article, which appeared below the fold in the Progress B-section, was actually a story about how nearly impossible it would be for Schilling to win (and how hard it is to convince people to cast only one vote when they have two).
Schilling himself never publicly advocated single-shotting, although he was well aware that some Republicans were calling for use of the strategy.
But did the newspaper article influence his win? “I think we have a lot of complaining,” he says. “We have no way of knowing who single-shotted.”
Bob Hodous, Republican chair, thinks the article might have had an effect, since over 1,200 people did it (compared to 586 single-shot votes in the fully slated, three-seat 2000 election), but it’s impossible to tell which people were single-shotting. “It could have been people voting for [independent] Stratton Salidis,” he theorizes.
“Votes are too valuable to waste,” declares Mayor and top vote-getting Democrat, Blake Caravati, who worries that Mooney's story "enabled" the difficult-to-understand process.
"It probably would be better if he hadn't written it," says Caravati, "but it is news. Single-shotting did not lose the election for the Democrats," says Caravati. “The Democratic party did not do its job.”
So is it unethical to run such a story on election day? Wendell Cochran, journalism ethics professor at American University, thinks not. He says the story does a public service in explaining an “arcane” election system and doesn’t give an unfair advantage to either side, especially since Mooney contacted sources from both sides for comment.
“Those who are complaining likely are supporters of the losing candidate,” Cochran adds. “They don’t have much of an argument.”
Interestingly, Charlottesville Democrats have used single-shotting in a City Council election. It happened in 1954, when Democrat Tom Michie Sr. was elected to Council by one vote when City African Americans single-shotted Michie. The reason? He was the only candidate who said he’d uphold the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision in the face of Virginia’s Massive Resistance to integration.
Over at the election registrar’s office, Sheri Iachetta clarifies one thing: “We don’t call it single-shotting. It’s an undervote. And it’s completely valid. If you don’t want to vote for someone, that’s your right.”
Republican Kevin Cox was at the polls and aggressively trying to get voters to single-shot– er, undervote– for Schilling. Cox downplays any Mooney momentum.
“I asked people if they’d seen the article, and only about 10 percent had,” claims Cox. “Not that many people read the Progress.”
A letter Cox wrote appeared in the Progress the week before the election, urging voters to cast their ballots only for Schilling, saying that if they had to vote for one other person, to write in the name of Jon Bright, who ran unsuccessfully for Council two years ago, or some other Republican.
“I’d much rather believe our work in getting the word out to voters is what influenced the election,” says Cox. “There’s a lot of finger-pointing going on. I think they’re sore losers."