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

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."

O'Doherty pointed to the 1999 referendum as proof that Baltimoreans would prefer to tie their election to the president's race.

Other city officials note that the city's elections have always occurred in off years — a fact some attribute to Republicans in Annapolis long ago trying to keep Baltimore's Democratic electorate at home in gubernatorial election years.

They scoff at the notion that the city should be lumped in with other jurisdictions. "We aren't just a county," said Spector. "We're a major municipality that's the major economic generator."

Councilman Robert W. Curran wondered how all the names could fit onto the ballot.

"You would add to a ballot that's already so crowded," he said. "Who would go first? Would the mayor go before the senators and the delegates?"

A spokesman for Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young denied that there was any political motivation and said it all came down to numbers."

"The end goal is to do what you can to bring the most voters to the polls, and if there's a choice between the gubernatorial and the presidential, you're going to get more people to the polls in the presidential cycle," spokesman Lester Davis said.

But Clarke acknowledged that city politicians have long benefitd from being able to run for state office without risking their current position.

"Why shouldn't we keep the city's edge in running for top state office?" she said. "We are the city. The state grew from the city. It gives us an edge because our mayor can run for governor without giving up the office."

A newly formed coalition of voting advocates takes exception to that idea.

The Baltimore Election Change Coalition says that city residents lose out when their politicians are able to hold down one seat while running for another. The coalition is pushing for the city to move to the state cycle.

"They're sort of playing the system, and it's not quite fair to the electorate," said coalition president Millie Tyssowski.

She pointed to Gov. Martin O'Malley, who ran for state office before his mayoral term concluded, leaving then-council president Sheila Dixon to be elevated to the mayor's office.

More recently, state Sen. Catherine E. Pugh returned to her seat in Annapolis after launching an unsuccessful bid for mayor last year.

State Delegate Carter noted that if the city's election coincided with the presidential race, the April primary would effectively bar state legislators from running for city offices. The General Assembly meets from January through April, in what would presumably be the thick of the city primary campaign.

State Senator McFadden says he's trying to broker a compromise between the Senate president, mayor and council. He says he would prefer they align the city's election with the rest of the state, but hasn't ruled out moving it to the presidential cycle.

"The influence we can generate for the city lies at the state level," said McFadden. He believes that statewide candidates would spend more time stumping in Baltimore — and promise more perks for the city — if the city's election coincided with the governor's race.

He stressed the importance of moving the election, regardless of political wrangling.

"I think level heads will prevail," McFadden said. "Absent that, we will be where we are now. And I don't think that looks good and I don't think the public will be pleased."



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