Carroll's municipal elections are over for this year, and they shared one trait -- disappointing voter turnouts.
Only Union Bridge and New Windsor were able to attract more than 40 percent of their registered voters to cast ballots. Taneytown, Manchester and Hampstead had turnouts of only about 15 percent. Westminster barely reached 10 percent. Such pathetic participation in elections can undermine the authority and power of Carroll's municipalities because a minority of voters -- sometimes numbering less than 100 -- is selecting officials for the towns.
Since 1990, when the General Assembly enacted universal registration, the number of eligible voters in these municipalities has increased. But few town residents are taking advantage of this simplified process. Under the new system, once voters are registered with the state, they are automatically eligible to vote in municipal elections.
A number of factors may have contributed to the meager turnouts. Many voters don't realize they are town residents and eligible to vote in town elections. New residents from out-of-county may not be familiar with the notion of municipal government and may not realize they can vote for mayor and town council. In some towns, voters don't know where to cast ballots because the town may use a different polling place from the county.
The low turnout can also be blamed on the short period -- as little as three weeks -- between candidate filing deadlines and the elections. Candidates don't have much opportunity to raise issues and debate them. There isn't as much media coverage compared with county and state elections. And, voters don't get to focus much attention on the elections.
To improve the turnout and guarantee the vibrancy of local government, town officials should take several actions.
First, elections should be held at least six weeks after the filing deadlines to allow more time for informative campaigns. Second, towns should have mass mailings to let residents know of the elections and their eligibility to vote.
Carroll's towns run the risk of having large groups of alienated residents who feel no stake in self-governance. We're not encouraging big-money campaigns at the local level of government, just more participatory democracy.