Playing games with Baltimore voting

Our view: City, state officials are taking the pettiest possible approach to election reform

January 24, 2012

As elected officials in Baltimore and Annapolis seek to address the debacle that was the city's voter turnout during the mayoral primary and general election last year, it's clear that the thing they care about the most is what voters care about the least: what's in it for the politicians.

State House leaders (in particular, Senate PresidentThomas V. Mike Miller) don't like the fact that the current system allows city officials to run for governor or the legislature without giving up their seats — in essence, allowing them a free shot at higher office. They want to align city elections with the gubernatorial election cycle. Baltimore officials, by contrast, seem to consider that their birthright as politicians from Maryland's largest city. They think city elections should be aligned with presidential elections. It's a petty consideration, divorced from what should be the top concerns: making Baltimore elections as efficient as possible and fostering an environment in which more residents will bother to vote. By the first standard, either option for changing the date of Baltimore elections will do. By the second, neither is sufficient.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blakewon last September's mayoral primary with a mere 37,000 votes, the lowest total for a victor in the city's de facto election in a century. The general election, a mere formality in a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans 9-1, was a waste of money and effort. Ms. Rawlings-Blake got 84 percent of the vote, but given the uncompetitiveness of the elections, so few people showed up that the administration of the election averaged out to about $33 per voter.

Would running the city's election in the same year that federal or state offices are on the ballot guarantee more people coming out to vote? Not necessarily.

Based on the total votes cast for the top-of-the-ticket races in the last 13 gubernatorial and presidential primaries, there appears to be one sure-fire way to generate higher-than-usual turnout: Have a competitive Democratic primary for president in which one of the leading candidates is African-American. That's what happened in 2008 and 1988, and those years both saw more than 100,000 votes cast. The biggest vote total in a primary in the last three decades came in 1986, when then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer beat out a competitive field. More than 150,000 votes were cast in that race.

Otherwise, turnout for the primaries for both president and governor generally varies within a narrow band, with neither one clearly and consistently outdrawing the other. If the major concern is getting more people involved in the electoral process in the city, officials need to consider reforms that recognize the lopsided partisan makeup of the city and create a process that makes sense for Baltimore. Open primaries, ranked voting systems or instant run-offs have been employed with some degree of success in other big cities. In Baltimore, they could encourage a more diverse pool of candidates and provide voters with the power to more clearly express their preferences.

Unfortunately, the city's politicians have shown no interest in altering the rules that served them well. Even so, if the current mood to address the embarrassment of the city's 2011 turnout results in nothing but synchronizing its elections with the federal or state cycle, that would still be worthwhile. Running the city's elections in a year when either state or federal races are on the ballot would at least save the expense of holding an entire separate set of elections, which costs $3 million or more — an important consideration in the perennially cash-strapped city.

But that leaves the question of which cycle to choose. Since the turnout argument is a wash — aside from some historical anomalies, one is as good as the other — and the debate over whether city politicians should get a free shot at other offices is fundamentally petty, we are left with a matter of logistics. The state's counties hold their elections for local office in gubernatorial years, and some city offices, such as state's attorney, are already held on that cycle. Moreover, presidential primaries are typically scheduled in the early spring, which maximizes the state's chances of having an impact on the selection of candidates but which would make little sense in a local electoral context. We would effectively wind up with an eight- or nine-month lame duck period between the Democratic primary and inauguration. For those reasons, aligning with the gubernatorial cycle is the best choice.

The mayor favors a shift to the presidential cycle, and her spokesman raises a valid point: Shifting immediately to gubernatorial election years would cut short her term and those of Baltimore's City Council members. True enough, voters decided to give them four years in office, not three. But shifting the other way would potentially keep the mayor in office for five years, and voters didn't choose that, either.

The simplest option, and the one with the greatest chance of winning approval in Baltimore and Annapolis, is this: Hold the next city election in 2015, as scheduled, but with the one after that timed to coincide with the gubernatorial election of 2018. That's fair to everyone.

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