Winners, losers bemoan low turnout in Laurel election

When asked about his re-election to the Laurel City Council after last week's vote, at-large candidate Michael Leszcz didn't offer a typical response.

Leszcz, who was re-elected to serve his 18th and 19th years on the council, quickly turned his attention to an under-the-radar election issue: voter turnout.

"When we got the results I was quite happy, but I was still a little disappointed in the turnout," Leszcz said less than an hour after polls closed Nov. 5. "I don't know what else we can do to get more people to come out. It would be nice to have more people involving themselves in the process."

All five incumbents campaigning together as Team Laurel won by comfortable margins against three challengers. Only 1,139 of the city's 16,065 registered voters participated, about 7 percent.

Leszcz isn't the only candidate perturbed by the turnout.

"I'm very disappointed about the low number, very disappointed," said Ward 1 Council member Valerie Nicholas, who received the most votes in her ward. "What I've been hearing is that they didn't come out to vote because they didn't know much about us, which is disappointing to me."

Nicholas said she plans to send out a newsletter to residents in hopes that they will become more engaged and will encourage her fellow incumbents to do the same.

"It's very important," Nicholas said about voter turnout. "I want everyone to be involved. You need to know what's going on in the place you live."

At-large challenger Adrian Rousseau, who lost to Leszcz, echoed their comments and said low turnout had an impact on the race.

"A higher turnout would favor me," said Rousseau. "If the turnout is low, they are going to get all their regular voters."

Rousseau said the solution is to leverage the interest in presidential and gubernatorial elections by holding city elections on the same years.

"If you have it during a major election, I think you will have a monster turnout," he said. "If you want to have a small group of people make a decision for many, keep having it on odd years."

In 2009, the City Council voted to change the date of city elections from September in even-numbered years to November in odd-numbered years, which took effect with the November 2011 elections.

While some candidates believe this year's total was low, it's been worse. In the 2008 council elections, with no contested races, only 3.4 percent of eligible voters turned out.

In the 2011 elections for mayor and council, nearly 11 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in a race that included three people seeking the mayor's office and two competing for the at-large council seat; the races in Wards 1 and 2 were uncontested.

Vote breakdown

Leszcz led all candidates in votes with 672, as voters from both wards are eligible to vote for the at-large seat.

Rousseau, who gathered 421 total votes, carried Ward 2, where he resides, edging out Leszcz 248 to 245.

Ward 1 incumbents Nicholas and H. Edward Ricks garnered 470 and 465 votes, respectively, while in Ward 2, Council member Donna Crary led all candidates with 351 votes.

Ward 2 council challenger Thomas Matthews lost by 53 votes to incumbent council president Frederick Smalls.

Of the 99 possible absentee ballots in both wards, 74 were cast, and 32 provisional ballots were accepted, 27 coming from Ward 1.

Both Rousseau and Matthews had an advantage against the winners in absentee ballots from Ward 2, with Rousseau collecting 29 votes and Matthews 24.

In Ward 1, incumbents Leszcz, Nicholas and Ricks outpaced challengers Rousseau and John Mathew Smith in absentee ballots. Early voting also favored the incumbents, as 82 percent of the votes cast by the 113 voters were for incumbents.

Baltimore Sun Media Group editor Melanie Dzwonchyk contributed to this story.

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