Council weighs gap in voting

Voters would be asked to revive odd-year election

14-month primary lag at issue

Timing changed in '99 to presidential years

January 26, 2004|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,SUN STAFF

A battle is brewing -- yet again -- over the fate of the date of city elections.

Voters, don't be confused. November's general election for mayor and City Council (oh, and president, too) are proceeding as scheduled.

But don't be surprised to see a referendum on November's ballot asking city voters to return city elections to the odd-numbered-year schedule they voted to abandon in 1999.

The City Council is scheduled to take its final vote tonight on a resolution for such a ballot initiative.

The council hopes the measure will prod voters into erasing the 14-month gap between September's political party primaries and November's general election.

Although the council is expected to pass the resolution with Mayor Martin O'Malley's blessing, several council members and some election experts oppose the bill because they want to see what state lawmakers propose during the General Assembly session.

"The basic reason we oppose [the council bill] is that it defeats the purpose of why we changed [the election] in the first place: to save money and to increase voter turnout," said Gail Sunderman, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Baltimore City.

She said her group will work toward the measure's defeat if it passes.

Until last year, city elections were traditionally been held in odd-numbered years every four years, with party primaries in September and general elections in November.

In 1999, voters approved a ballot initiative that sought to schedule city elections in even-numbered, presidential election years to eliminate the cost of holding a stand-alone local election and to increase voter turnout.

But only state lawmakers can reschedule primaries.

Therefore, the 1999 referendum moved the general election to November 2004 but left the primary on the old schedule of September 2003.

Three members on the 19-member, all-Democratic council lost in the September 2003 Democratic primary, and four others decided not to seek re-election. Because of the gap, they won't leave office until December, creating possibly the longest lame-duck term of its kind in the nation.

Last year, state lawmakers and city officials failed to find a solution to move the primary closer to the general election.

Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector introduced a bill late last year to let the voters reduce the gap by asking them to reverse their 1999 decision and place the city back on the old election cycle.

Spector said the cost of holding a city election, nearly $3 million, isn't as damaging as letting the 14-month gap continue.

"The whole thing has been screwed up good," Spector said. "I'm just trying to put Humpty Dumpty back on the wall."

Councilman Robert W. Curran has argued that the council should wait to see what the General Assembly does. He said the council has to be mindful that holding the election in a presidential year saves money because it's one less election the city has to stage.

It is possible, Curran said, that state lawmakers will move the city's primaries to presidential years. "I want to give the state one last chance," Curran said.

State Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, an East Baltimore Democrat, said he was going to introduce a bill this year that would do that but that he backed off after the council demonstrated initial support for the bill being voted on tonight.

"They seem to be resolved to going back to the old cycle," McFadden said.

Del. Nathaniel T. Oaks, a Northwest Baltimore Democrat, has introduced a bill that would align city elections with gubernatorial and statewide races. The next governor's race is in 2006. If Oaks' bill passes, council members and the mayor will serve two-year terms after November's election.

Baltimore is the only jurisdiction in Maryland that does not follow the state election cycle.

State lawmakers, with the support of Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, have backed aligning city and statewide elections because doing so would prevent city officials from running for state offices without losing their locally elected positions.

O'Malley is widely expected to run for governor in 2006. If Oaks' bill passes, he will be forced to choose between running for re-election and running for state office. O'Malley spokesman Stephen J. Kearney said the mayor supports the City Council's proposal because the state has had its chance to make a change. He said a two-year mayoral term is too short for any mayor to effectively serve the city.

Oaks said the city should not be treated as a special case.

"The city is laying off people, and they can save [money]. Why shouldn't it be a great thing?" Oaks asked. "Why should they be any different than any other jurisdiction in the state?"

If the council's measure passes tonight, as expected, voters still might not approve it in November.

"If voters reject it, which I hope they do, then I hope the state legislature will say, `OK, let's move it to September 2008 or to March 2008,'" Curran said.

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