Norfolk May 2016 election: by the numbers

mathWhile it has been a while, I still think a look at the Norfolk election numbers is relevant, at least for future reference.

I usually try my hand at predicting overall turnout as well as precinct-by-precinct turnout for each of Norfolk’s elections. Most of the time, my numbers are pretty close – sometimes, within 2 or 3 votes in a precinct. But this year, given the nature of the election, my numbers were WAY off. My original estimate, done back in February, was that turnout would be a little over 21%, with about 24,000 votes cast.

This was a difficult election to predict turnout, for two main reasons:

  1. The mayoral contest was for an open seat. Norfolk has a very short history of electing its mayor, with the first contest in nearly 100 years taking place in 2010. The first elected mayor was already the incumbent, albeit one chosen by his peers.
  2. The shift in the mayoral election. In 2010 and 2014, the mayor’s race coincided with the election in the five small wards. This year, the mayoral election was held in conjunction with the two superwards.

Talking with others, I was convinced that my estimate was too high; after all, over the last four local election cycles (2008, 2010, 2012 and 2014), turnout had averaged 13.57%. Only once over that cycle had turnout exceeded 20% – in 2010, when it was about 23%. So I revised it downward, to about 19% of registered voters (as of 2/1), with an estimate of 21,642 votes being cast. I reviewed the calculations on 4/28 and felt no further revisions were necessary.

Imagine my surprise when the turnout (pdf) was 27.6%, with 31,782 votes cast. As I compiled the precinct-by-precinct numbers on election night as the numbers came in, I immediately saw that turnout was going to be much higher – and come from places that traditionally didn’t turn out in Norfolk: namely, Superward 7.

Typically, Superward 6 accounts for the larger share of the vote total: In 2012, for example, it was almost 70% of the vote. Even in mayoral contest years (citywide), S6 turns out at a higher rate than does S7, despite the two having nearly equal numbers of registered voters. Roughly 60% of the additional 10,000 votes cast over my estimates came from S7 (note that I have included absentee votes in S7):

RV Proj Actual Diff
Superward 6      57,549      13,512      17,633         4,121
Superward 7      57,583         8,130      14,149         6,019
   115,132      21,642      31,782

If you do the math, you will see that S6 accounted for only 55.48% of the vote this year. The previous low for S6 was 56.91%, in 2014. This surge in S7 voting is probably best explained by the mayoral candidacy of Kenny Alexander.

Mayor-elect Alexander garnered a total of 16,353 votes, representing 51.45% of the votes cast. In S6, he received 5,742 votes, just 32.56% of those cast, which is to be expected in a three-way race. But in S7, he got 10,611 votes – an astonishing 74.99% of those cast. By comparison, in 2010, Daun Hester – then the S7 representative on council – received 53.28% of the S7 vote.

I can honestly say that I never expected the size of the surge in S7 voting nor that Alexander would get such a large a percentage of the vote, especially given the efforts of Sheriff Bob McCabe – one of the other mayoral candidates – in the area over his career. (I did expect the third mayoral candidate, Andy Protogyrou, would perform poorly in S7, which he did.)

One of the reasons why S6 typically accounts for a larger percentage of the votes cast is that they tend to have competitive races. S7 may have contested races, but they are rarely competitive. Such was the case again this year: in S6, incumbent councilman Barclay Winn was defeated by challenger Andria McClellan, and the school board contest – a first for Norfolk – was also competitive. By contrast, in the S7 council race, the incumbent was re-elected with almost 56% of the vote despite having three challengers. The S7 school board race was uncontested.

So the only thing driving turnout in S7 was the mayoral race. No, it wasn’t Obama-like numbers, but it was impressive.

There is one area in the city which met my expectations: Ward 2. I don’t know quite what is going on over there, but this ward consistently outperforms every other in the city. (Interestingly enough, it performs better when its representative is not on the ballot.) With 25.93% of the registered voters, this ward accounted for 29.28% of the votes cast this year. None of the other four small wards can make this claim.  Future candidates in Norfolk may want to keep an eye on this ward: in 2008 and 2012, it accounted for 34.25% and 38.06%, respectively, of the total votes cast.


For those reading this who are not familiar with Norfolk, our city has five small wards – roughly 20% of the population in each – overlaid with two superwards, each covering about half of the city. Race is an important factor here – two of the small wards (3 and 4) as well as S7 are designed as majority-minority wards. All of the precincts in W3 and W4 plus one in W1 and three in W2 fall into S7. The remaining precincts, including all of those in W5, fall into S6.