'Odd' Proposal for Baltimore County


I'd bet the winnings from a pyramid scheme that I wasn't the only person with head bowed over the Butterball two days ago in prayerful thanks for the end of the 1994 election season. Coast to coast and buck for buck, it had to be the sleaziest, meanest, dumbest campaign year ever inflicted on the republic.

Local races didn't disappoint either. Consider Baltimore County: People will be talking for years about the councilmanic contest between Bill "A Tale of Two Counties" Howard and Joe "Candid Camera" Bartenfelder. And about the myriad mysteries of Jay Kim -- if that, in fact, is his real name. And about the way Eastside pols parlayed the Moving to Opportunity program into a shameful, albeit effective, game of race politics. And about Roger Hayden's non-concession speech and non-concession press conference, in both of which he left the lasting impression of a child who is sore about losing and announces he's going to take his ball home, nyahh, nyahh.

After such a nauseating political year, common sense would dictate that the fewer elections held, the better. Nonetheless, pardon me while I elbow common sense aside and propose -- drum roll! -- another year of elections for Baltimore County.

Here's the idea: Just as Baltimore City regularly holds off-year contests for the offices of mayor, city council and comptroller -- as will be the case in 1995 -- Baltimore County should follow suit by switching to off-year balloting for its local (executive and council) races.

Since the county switched to a charter form of government more than 35 years ago, local elections have been held every four years, starting in 1958. The quadrennial General Assembly races have taken place during the same years. The Democratic party's dominance for most of this period resulted in political races that were largely uncluttered affairs. Indeed, until 1966, Baltimore County's Annapolis delegation consisted of only one state senator and six delegates, each picked on a countywide basis. Even after court-ordered reapportionment led to the system of seven senatorial districts with three delegates each, Democrats called the shots in one-sided elections.

That began to change four years ago, with Republican victories in the county executive, council and General Assembly races. The GOP's ascendancy continued this year, helped in part by the 1992 legislative redistricting that caused Republican inroads into former Democratic strongholds. Where GOP candidacies were once unthinkable, they were amazingly viable in 1994. For example, in the Sixth Legislative District, at one time the heart of the old east-county Democratic machine, GOP hopefuls for the House of Delegates outnumbered the opposing party's candidates in the September primary. Earlier this month, Ken Holt became the first Republican elected from the Sixth in modern times.

Democrats maintain their dominance in Baltimore County, but the Republicans aren't going away. Chances are they'll grow more numerous. The upshot is that local and state races in the county will become increasingly crowded, as voters are forced to sift through more and more candidates, issues and positions. The 1994 elections were overwhelming enough for the journalists whose job it was to know the 200-plus county candidates well. There's no way a citizenry with many distractions found the task easier. It's just as doubtful they'll fare any better if, as expected, state and local races become more competitive.

So it would be to the public's benefit to copy the city system: Hold statewide elections in the usual even-numbered years (1998, 2002, etc.), but move the local contests to the following odd-numbered years. Each race in Baltimore County, at both the state and local levels, would stand an improved chance of receiving the public scrutiny it merits. The county actually has a greater need of this arrangement than does the city, where elections in 1994 were as much Democrat-dominated events as the county's were in 1964.

The switch apparently requires an act of the legislature. Would the senators and delegates play along? Probably not, given how same-year elections tend to keep local officials in local races and therefore less likely to compete for state seats. Too, the logistics of staging an off-year election, along with the cost of up to $1 million in county funds, would seem prohibitive to some critics.

But the proposal is for the benefit of voters. Forget the hassles for pols and election officials. If the public were to deem the idea promising, why not give it a hard, honest look?

Patrick Ercolano writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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