The right time for city elections

Baltimore City senators are backing a bill to change the dates of municipal elections in a way that benefits them more than the people they are supposed to serve. Legislation that was originally intended to transition city elections to the same year that voters elect the governor and members of the General Assembly — as well as local offices in most other jurisdictions, and even some in Baltimore — has been amended to move them instead to the year of presidential primaries. That maximizes the opportunity for members of the city's Annapolis delegation to run for municipal offices without giving up their day jobs, but it fails to maximize the chance that a large number of voters will participate in the selection of the mayor and City Council.

The current timing of Baltimore elections makes little sense and wastes millions of dollars. As it stands, city primary elections (which are the ones that really count in overwhelmingly Democratic Baltimore) are held in September of the year following a gubernatorial election. The general election takes place in November of those years. In part because no state or federal offices are on the ballot at the same time, turnout in these elections tends to be low, particularly in the November general elections. And because the city is running an entire extra election, with all the costs for election judges, voting machine technicians, printing and other expenses, it tends to cost about $3.7 million. In last year's mayoral general election, it averaged out to about $33 per voter.

City elected officials have long realized this and have made various attempts over the years to realign the election cycle. The problem is, the city was able to change its general election date on its own, and it did so more than a decade ago in an attempt to align itself with presidential elections, beginning in 2004. But the state legislature controlled the timing of the primary, and because of a disagreement between Baltimore and Annapolis over whether the presidential or gubernatorial cycle was the best, the city at one point wound up with a 14-month gap between the 2003 primary and the 2004 general election. After that, the city switched back to its original, odd-year elections.

Last year's dismal turnout again brought the issue to the fore in Annapolis, but it has not resolved the gubernatorial vs. presidential issue. MayorStephanie Rawlings-Blakehas backed the presidential cycle, in part because aligning the city elections with the 2014 gubernatorial election would cut short the terms of those currently in office (herself included), which she says is not what the voters bargained for. Sen.Nathaniel J. McFaddenintroduced what seemed like a reasonable compromise measure: Switch to the presidential election in 2016 (giving the current officials five-year terms) and then to the gubernatorial cycle in 2018. Because the city will hold elections in those years anyway, it would incur no significant extra costs based on that plan, nobody's terms would be cut short, and Baltimore would be put on a path to synchronizing itself with the rest of the state.

But the measure was amended in committee to switch from the two-step process Mr. McFadden originally envisioned to a simple switch to the presidential cycle, starting in 2016. That's a bad idea for two reasons. First, because presidential primaries take place early in the year (this year, it will be April 3, but four years ago it was as early as Feb. 12), Baltimore would effectively have a prolonged lame-duck period between the primary election and the inauguration of the new mayor and council in December.

The second reason is that, on average, turnout is higher for gubernatorial primaries than presidential ones. There are outliers, such as the 2008 primary contest between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, but the overall trend, dating back at least to the 1980s, is clear. Most likely, it will be even more so after April 3. President Obama has no competition, and the only hotly contested election on the ballot in Baltimore is the Republican presidential primary. Considering that fewer than 32,000 of the city's 366,000 registered voters are Republicans, that's not exactly a recipe for high turnout.

The Senate could take a final vote on the measure by the end of the week. It should reject the bill and try again next year — based on the timing, no harm would be done. But if the bill passes the Senate, the House, where a similar bill has yet to get a committee vote, needs to take corrective action. Holding city elections on the presidential cycle may suit the preferences of ambitious politicians, but it doesn't serve the voters well.

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