Fixing Baltimore's broken primary

The pathetic turnout in Baltimore's primary election Tuesday demands a response. The blame lies, of course, on the citizens themselves who didn't bother to vote — nearly 80 percent of those eligible stayed home. But the city and state have also done everything they could to make the prospect of voting in Baltimore's primary unappealing.

Despite the fact that the Democratic primary is the de facto election in the city, a mere 70,400 people turned out on Tuesday. The winner of the mayor's race got fewer than 37,000 votes. The last person who won the Democratic primary in Baltimore with so few votes was James H. Preston — in 1911. This year, three members of the City Council will be sent to represent their districts with the support of fewer than 1,700 people. This is hardly representative democracy.


An obvious part of the solution is to stop holding Baltimore city elections in a year when there are no other offices or issues on the ballot. Doing so asks people to go to the polls to make choices in just four races — mayor, council president, comptroller and council member, and this year, Comptroller Joan Pratt ran unopposed (as did two council members). That not only makes the exercise seem less worth a voter's time but also diminishes the chances that some candidate or race will catch a voter's attention.

The city tried to rectify this several years ago, when Councilman Robert Curran succeeded in moving the primary to a presidential election year. But state legislators, who control the date of the city's general election, monkeyed with the system in such a way that there was a 14-month gap between the primary and the general, prompting the city to switch back to odd years. After that fiasco, state lawmakers, including Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and Baltimore's Sen. Nathaniel McFadden, proposed moving city elections to the state election cycle, when voters choose the governor, legislators and other offices. But then-mayor Sheila Dixon objected, arguing that the city needed its own election cycle so voters could focus specifically on city issues.


That obviously isn't happening, and the concurrent elections for local and state offices don't seem to be causing problems in the counties. The question now is whether the city's primary should be on the presidential cycle or held at the same time as elections for state offices. The presidential primary results in much higher turnout — about 107,000 city residents cast votes in the Democratic primary for president in 2008, compared to 86,125 in the last highly contested gubernatorial primary, back in 1994. (The 2010 primary, in which Gov. Martin O'Malley faced token opposition, produced even fewer total city votes than Tuesday's contest.) But since other city offices, including state's attorney and court clerk, are decided on the state cycle, there is good logic for holding the mayoral election in those years as well.

But Tuesday's results — and the pointlessness of holding a general election in an overwhelmingly Democratic city — suggest that even bigger reforms are necessary to engage voters and make them feel like they have a real say in the outcome.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who got nearly 37,000 votes in the primary, will face off in the general election against a Republican who got fewer than 900 votes primary votes, as opposed to a candidate — state Sen. Catherine Pugh, a Democrat — who got more than 17,000 votes. That makes no sense. In The City Council's 9th District, 65 percent of the voters in the Democratic primary wanted a candidate other than William "Pete" Welch. But eight other candidates split the vote, and no Republicans or Green Party candidates are running in the district, so he is headed back to City Hall. That makes no sense either.

There are plenty of other models for how to run an election so that it more accurately reflects the will of the people than the strict party system we have here. An intriguing idea is the one recently enacted in California; there, the top two vote getters in the primary (regardless of party affiliation) square off in the general election. It's worth considering. Other ideas, such as proportional representation and run-off elections, could better engage voters and provide elected officials with a clearer mandate.

The candidates who won on Tuesday should be sufficiently embarrassed by the pittance of voters they attracted that they would lead the charge for election reform. But that probably won't happen. It's possible that some will take up the idea of realigning the city election calendar — if for no other reason than the current system is a tremendous waste of money — but the idea of more fundamental reform is likely to go nowhere. The status quo suits the incumbents just fine.

That's why the civic institutions in this city need to step in and start a conversation about the root causes of the extremely low voter engagement in Baltimore and to develop consensus behind solutions. Baltimore's citizens have reformed the system against the politicians' will before, as in the move from multi-member to single-member council districts a decade ago. They can do it again.