A stealth election year for Baltimore

14 months after the primaries, mayor, City Council face vote

Coincides with presidential ballot

First, maybe last, overlap guarantees a higher turnout

September 05, 2004|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

In a normal Baltimore election year, Labor Day weekend and the days that follow are among the busiest days of the year: Candidates and supporters wave at street corners; lawns and storefronts are festooned with signs; and campaign ads clog radio airwaves.

The political scene is much more placid right now, for this is no normal city election year.

Because of a political standoff over a change in the city's election cycle, the primaries - held the second Tuesday in September and long tantamount to coronation in this overwhelmingly Democratic city - were held a year ago.

And the Nov. 2 general election will be the first in city history - and maybe the last - to coincide with the presidential election. That guarantees a turnout much higher than usual in a contest that will feature an enthusiastic Green Party and put 12 incumbent City Council members before the voters for the first time since the disclosure of a federal investigation into the council's financial dealings.

FOR THE RECORD - Because of incorrect information from the Baltimore Board of Elections, an article in Sunday's editions of The Sun mischaracterized the status of the mayoral write-in candidacy of Frank M. Conaway in the Nov. 2 general election. Conaway has registered his candidacy with the elections board. The names of registered write-in candidates are not listed on the ballot but are posted on information boards at polling places. If write-in candidates do not register, their names are not posted.
The Sun regrets the errors.

Although things might be quieter than usual on the streets, they are anything but that at the city elections board, where three temporary workers were recently hired to handle a surge in voter registration.

In the past month alone, election officials have received more than 2,000 registrations, with five weeks to go before the Oct. 12 deadline for the November election.

"Usually a month or so before the close of the books, we've been getting a couple of hundred ... not 2,000," said Barbara Jackson, the city's elections supervisor. "I think it's a combination of the presidential election combined with the city election, plus a lot of people pushing registrations."

In addition, the board has received twice that many notifications of address changes.

"That means people want to be ready to vote," Jackson said. "I'm happy about that."

31 ballots to cover

Combining the presidential race with the city general election also means the election board will have to prepare 10 times as many ballot styles as usual.

In previous presidential election years, the board had to prepare three ballots - one for each of three U.S. congressional districts that include parts of Baltimore.

This year, it will have to prepare 31 ballots to cover all possible permutations among the city's precincts with those three districts overlapping the newly created 14 City Council districts. Those districts replaced the six three-member districts after voters approved a restructuring two years ago.

The 14-month gap between last September's primaries and this year's general election is also sowing confusion.

"We've gotten calls from people wanting to know what day in September the election is," Jackson said. "We say, `It was last year.' "

That confusion seems to extend to the city's Internet webmaster. Last week, the Board of Elections site had a spot to click on for primary election results from Tuesday, September 9, 2004.

The gap was created after voters approved a referendum in 1999 to move the city's general election to coincide with the presidential election. But only the General Assembly is allowed to change the dates of primary elections, and some state legislative leaders refused to go along.

A referendum on the Nov. 2 ballot - approved by the lame-duck council by a 13-5 vote with one abstention and quickly signed by Mayor Martin O'Malley - would return city elections to odd-numbered years beginning in 2007. If it passes, the officials elected in November would serve only three-year terms.

"I don't want to go back to odd-numbered years, but it's going to win. Most charter amendments pass," said Councilman Robert W. Curran, who sponsored the original measure to move the election in an effort to save money and increase voter turnout.

With the last Republican mayor elected in 1963 and the last GOP council member elected before World War II, turnout in the city's general elections has been as low as about 20 percent. Even turnout in the more competitive primaries has topped 50 percent just once in the past three decades.

By contrast, city turnout in the past five presidential elections has ranged from a low of 55 percent, in President Bill Clinton's first campaign, to 69 percent, in his second.

"The participation level is going to be up," said John Willis, senior executive in residence at the University of Baltimore's School of Public Affairs and an authority on Maryland elections. "When you have an off-year election, you're going to have low turnout."

The chief beneficiary of higher turnout in the city, he said, should be Sen. John Kerry, although polls show that the Democratic presidential nominee is comfortably ahead of President Bush in Maryland.

"From a partisan point of view, it helps the Democratic presidential candidate," said Willis, a former Maryland secretary of state. "The mayor and council will be more engaged than they otherwise would be."

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