Nonpartisan voting for fairer city elections

We're residents of Baltimore City who happen to be loyal members of two different political parties. We've both spent a lot of time participating in politics and public policy matters from different perches.

Despite our different perspectives, we're concerned that the 2011 Baltimore City election cycle is not generating the excitement or attention it should.

It certainly isn't for a lack of compelling or experienced candidates. This year's crop of mayoral choices include an incumbent seeking election in her own right, a former city official running on new ideas, a state senator and a City Council veteran.

And it certainly isn't because of a dearth of important issues. Addressing crime, fixing the schools, reevaluating the property tax rate, addressing continued population loss and setting budget priorities during a time of limited resources are among the matters requiring voters' attention.

Rather, we believe this phenomenon stems from reasons of process, not substance. Baltimore's stagnant electoral system deprives voters of the kind of vigorous debate that usually occurs during an energetic fall campaign.

Right now, the outcome of the Democratic primary election in September effectively determines the outcome of the mayoral race — and all other citywide and councilmanic contests. Candidates campaign during the summer months of an electoral off-year, when voters are either away or not yet engaged. And the November general election is a pro forma affair with low turnout and a preordained outcome.

Replacing the current system with nonpartisan elections would address these structural deficiencies, infusing a new degree of energy and excitement into Baltimore's moribund election process.

While the phrase "nonpartisan elections" may sound oxymoronic, it is not a new concept. According to the National League of Cities, 20 of the nation's 30 largest cities already have nonpartisan balloting. Further, the Maryland Municipal League reports that all the state's municipalities have them, except for Baltimore, Hagerstown, Annapolis and Frederick (Cumberland presently transitioning toward nonpartisan elections.)

Here is one way it could work. Every candidate for a city office would compete on the same September ballot. Their names would appear without party affiliation. Based on other cities' experiences, candidates' party and policy leanings generally come out during the campaign. The two top finishers would move on to a November runoff.

A nonpartisan election offers numerous advantages over the present system.

First, it enfranchises everyone. In terms of percentage, Democrats are not the fastest-growing voting group in Baltimore. Since 2005, Democratic voter registration in the city has increased by 14 percent, while "unaffiliated" increased by 28 percent. But these citizens presently have to re-register as Democrats if they want to vote in the pivotal primary election, or run for office and have any chance of winning. Nonpartisan voting would give them a full voice in the process.

Second, it brings majority rule to city elections. Presently, candidates can effectively win office simply by achieving a plurality in the Democratic primary. Under the new system, city candidates would have to win a majority in a fall election that actually matters — just as many of their state and federal counterparts must do.

Third, it gives city residents the opportunity to have a chance to vote for viable alternatives to the status quo.

No one is predicting an end to Democratic dominance in Baltimore City anytime soon. No Republican has been elected mayor since 1963, and the last GOP city councilman served almost 70 years ago. But nonpartisan elections would allow disaffected Democrats to form coalitions with Republicans, unaffiliated voters and members of third parties in support of candidates who offer views contrary to the City Hall establishment. This could really have a significant impact in certain councilmanic races and spur greater ideas and debate within the legislative branch of city government.

Of course, in designing a functioning nonpartisan election system, what works for the citizens of, say, Seattle may not work here. A system appropriate to Baltimore's traditions, culture and governance would have to be created. We hope Baltimore's civic, academic and foundation communities will help develop and support this idea.

Only one candidate can win any given election. But nonpartisan elections translate into better choices. That's a win for everyone.

Richard J. Cross III (, a Republican, is a former press secretary and speechwriter to Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and a PR strategist. Tracy Gosson (, a Democrat, is president of local marketing firm Sagesse Inc. and the former executive director of Live Baltimore.

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