When should Baltimoreans vote? Once again, officials battle over proposals for change

Politicians, advocates split on whether to move to federal or state cycle

January 23, 2012|By Julie Scharper, The Baltimore Sun

City and state leaders and voting rights advocates agree on this: After last year's abysmal voter turnout, Baltimore's odd election cycle should be changed to lure more people to the polls and save millions of dollars.

But a fierce battle is brewing over whether to move city balloting to coincide with elections for president or for governor — choices which have political ramifications.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and the City Council emphatically support the former option, which would make Baltimore the state's only major subdivision to hold elections on the presidential cycle. They would move the city's next election — now set for 2015 — to 2016, when the nation will again be choosing a president.

"I think we'd get much more participation in a presidential election" year, said Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector, who introduced a bill Monday to put a charter amendment to make that change on this November's ballot.

But that would give the current crop of city officials an extra year in office. Moreover, holding Baltimore elections in a year other than when Marylanders vote for virtually all other offices would give city elected officials a continued advantage.

Some state leaders, backed by a coalition headed by the city's League of Women Voters, point out that Baltimore politicians would still be able to run for state office without giving up their city posts, unlike leaders from other counties.

"They want the cake and they want to be able to eat it too," said Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. He says the Senate would back moving city elections to the gubernatorial cycle, but not the presidential.

"If they want to choose to have their election cycle the same as everyone else does, we welcome that," Miller said.

Moving the election to either cycle could save the cash-strapped city as much as $4 million, said Armstead B.C. Jones, director of the Baltimore Board of Elections.

The city must pay for training and salaries for judges, polling machines and other expenses for its odd-year election when nothing else is on the ballot — and voters barely trickle into the polls.

"One year I decided to be a judge, and I was bored to death," said Tessa Hill-Aston, president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The civil rights group has joined the coalition seeking to move the city's elections to the state cycle.

The process of changing the city's election is complicated by the fact that while city voters can move the date of the general election, only the Maryland General Assembly can change the primary.

This led to political high jinks in 1999, when city residents voted to move their next general election from 2003 to 2004, with the presidential race, but Miller refused to move the primary from its original 2003 date.

The result was that the city in September 2003 had its Democratic primary— tantamount to the election in overwhelmingly Democratic Baltimore — but the general election was in November 2004. Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who won the primary for a seat on the council, says the 14-month lag time was brutal.

"It was a long time to be half-pregnant," said Clarke, who returned to elected office in 2004 after almost a decade out of it. Constituents routinely called on her to help with neighborhood problems, but she did not have an office, budget or staff, she said.

Seven of the council's 19 members (the council has since shrunk to 15) served out what The Baltimore Sun at the time called "possibly the longest lame-duck term of its kind in the nation."

Spector introduced legislation in 2004 to move the city's general election back to its former cycle to eliminate the lag time.

Since then, State Sen. Nathaniel McFadden and Del. Jill P. Carter have introduced bills to align the city's elections with the rest of the state, but both measures failed.

Voting in Baltimore elections has continued to decline in the interim.

About 76,000 people voted in Baltimore's most recent primary, compared with nearly 88,000 in 2007 and 91,000 in 2003, according to the state board of elections. Far fewer voted in the general elections.

In contrast, 214,000 Baltimoreans voted for Barack Obama in the 2008 general election and 133,000 voted for Martin O'Malley for governor in 2010.

A spokesman for Rawlings-Blake said the mayor supports moving to the presidential cycle because moving to the state cycle — when the next city election would be held a year early, in 2014, rather than the currently scheduled 2015 — would lop a year from the current terms of city officials. City voters would be disappointed, he said.

"The people voted these representatives into office for four year terms and then you clip the term short? That's problematic," said Ryan O'Doherty, a Rawlings-Blake spokesman. "There's something that seems unfair about diminishing someone's term when they've just been elected."

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