Election officials wary of altering primary

Senate panel is told costs, weather key concerns in plan to hold vote in Feb.

March 19, 2003|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

With potential winter storms and an impending war in mind, election officials voiced concerns yesterday over a proposal by the Senate president to move Maryland's next presidential primary to February.

The election workers, testifying before the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, said the state should carefully consider any decision on the timing of the presidential primary to ensure voters are not hampered by bad weather on their way to the polls, and to avoid an increase in costs because of substantial logistical changes.

Election officials also said a war could make it tough to ensure that absentee ballots are distributed and returned in a timely manner, particularly with an earlier primary.

"No matter when the election is, we will see to it that it is done," said Barbara Fisher, chairwoman of the Maryland Association of Election Officials. "One of the concerns is the fiscal impact. The schools, they have their schedules committed for next year ... and we are very concerned about absentee ballots."

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller proposed the legislation to move the state's presidential primary from Super Tuesday in March to the second Tuesday in February. An earlier primary, Miller has said, would increase Maryland's visibility in presidential contests.

"We often don't have a national debate here," said Tim Perry, one of Miller's legislative aides, who testified on behalf of the president. With a February primary, "Maryland would have a front-row seat."

Several other jurisdictions in the region also are moving to change their presidential primaries - including Virginia and Washington - as a way to gain more news media attention.

Meanwhile, in Missouri, one legislator wants to eliminate his state's presidential primary altogether, saying it's too costly for the state at a time of overwhelming budget deficits. Moreover, just 19 percent of voters showed up at the polls for Missouri's February primary.

In addition to the fiscal and logistical issues for the state, a February presidential primary in Maryland also could significantly affect Baltimore.

Miller's proposal occurs as city lawmakers are working to set the primary election for Baltimore's municipal races. Legislation moving through the General Assembly would align the city's primary with the presidential primary in March next year.

Baltimore voters passed a referendum in 1999 to move the city's general election to coincide with presidential races. But the city has needed the Assembly, which sets the dates for all primary races in the state, to bring the city's primary in line with the presidential year.

The issue is further complicated by Miller's desire to move the city elections to coincide with state elections, which are held in even, nonpresidential years. Political wrangling between Miller and Baltimore officials has held up the city legislation since 2000.

The city's primary is scheduled for this fall, 14 months before the general election. State lawmakers must take action this session or risk having a lame-duck city government for more than a year.

Some city community groups said they wanted the primary to be moved to September next year, two months before the general election, to avoid having lame-duck officials in office for a lengthy period. But that proposal died in the House this week.

With the city attempting to align its primary with the presidential race, representatives of one of the groups, ACORN, told the committee yesterday that a February election would make matters worse for Baltimore. They said candidates could face wintry weather, hurting their ability to campaign against incumbents.

"It would be very difficult to do it in the winter," said Charles Metz, a Baltimore resident and group member. "I think it would be a better idea to move [the primary] to April or May."

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