City election date: correcting the bigger mistake

The bright side of the recent snafu that sent about 350,000 sample ballots out with the wrong date for Baltimore's upcoming primary is that it might remind voters that an election is just around the corner.

Perhaps the commotion over the correct date — it is Tuesday, Sept. 13, not Saturday, Sept. 3, as was stated on some parts of the sample ballot — will encourage registered voters to mark their calendars with the right date; as a result, turnout is likely to increase.

Voter turnout has been a problem in Baltimore City elections. As those who have ventured to the polls have probably noticed, the number of workers handing out election materials outside a polling place can easily surpass the number of voters inside casting ballots. In the last mayoral primary, in 2007, voter turnout was a little more than 28 percent and dropped down to about half of that for the general election (little more than a formality in the overwhelmingly Democratic city, where the winner of the Democratic primary is assured general election victory).

For this election, early voting is in the picture, meaning voters are not tied to casting their ballots on only one day. Early voters can make their candidate selections any time from Sept. 1 to Sept. 8, but they are limited to five locations. Those sites are Edmondson Westside High School, 501 Athol Ave.; The League for People with Disabilities, 1111 E. Cold Spring Lane; Moravia Park Drive Apartments, 6050 Moravia Park Drive; the Public Safety Training Center, 3500 W. Northern Parkway; and St. Brigid's Parish Center, 900 S. East Ave.

While early voting may help get a few more people to the polls in Baltimore, there is a much more potent remedy: move the date of the city elections to be in sync with the voting for statewide offices or for president. Currently, elections for Baltimore mayor and City Council seats are held in odd-numbered years, while those for state offices and president are held in even-numbered years. This is wasteful. Moving the city's elections to even-numbered years would save election costs. It would also increase voter turnout.

Consider the recent history. In 2004, when the city's general election coincided with the presidential election, turnout was more than 68 percent. Unfortunately, that election also approved a referendum that returned city elections to odd-numbered years beginning in 2007.

There are some arguments offered in favor of having city elections stand alone — all of them weak. One is that if they were held in conjunction with statewide campaigns, the state campaigns would drown out debates over local issues. This seems unlikely — and given the declining turnout in city elections, it appears local issues are already floundering.

A second objection is that changing the election date would eliminate the edge city office-seekers have in raising campaign funds. There are limits on the amount of money contributors can give candidates in an election cycle. Since the city elections come first in that cycle, contributors may hit their campaign-finance limits before state office-seekers get the chance to knock on their doors.

Some city office-seekers don't want to give up this fundraising edge; nor do they want to lose the advantage of getting a "free shot" at seeking statewide office. Now the election cycle is set up so Baltimore City officials don't have to give up their seats to run for the legislature or statewide office.

These fundraising and free shot advantages may make life easier for city office-seekers, but elections are not held to increase the comfort of candidates. Elections are held to accurately reflect the will of the populace. That requires good turnout and for that to happen — as the snafu with sample city election ballot reminds — the date for city elections needs to be corrected.

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