Baltimore general election: A waste of time and money

The votes are in, and the results are clear: Baltimore's general election was a nearly complete waste of time, money and effort. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake got about 84 percent of the measly 45,000 votes that were cast. Among the City Council races, only one was close. In most of the rest, the winners of the Democratic primary ran up margins that would make dictators holding sham elections envious. One incumbent, Sharon Green Middleton, got 98 percent of the vote.

This exercise cost city taxpayers about $1.5 million, or more than $33 per voter.

Granted, this is a year when voters seemed particularly disengaged with most of their choices, as evidenced by the historic low turnout in the September primary. But the general election turnout was actually somewhat better than it was four years ago. Tuesday's election fits a pattern that has held constant in overwhelmingly Democratic Baltimore since the days of its last Republican mayor, Theodore McKeldin, who left office in 1967.

This is not to say that democracy is ever a waste, or that a Republican or Green or Libertarian candidate could never knock off a Democrat. It is, however, extremely unlikely, and there is nothing wrong with acknowledging that Baltimore is ill served by an election system predicated on the notion that there are two political parties with roughly equivalent levels of support. That is not the case in Baltimore and hasn't been for a century. The city's electorate is different from those in other Maryland jurisdictions, and there's no reason its election process shouldn't be different as well.

Certainly, moving Baltimore's municipal elections so that they coincide with either the gubernatorial or presidential cycle would be an improvement; at least then, voters would have some reason to turn out in November and not just for the September primary. The exercise might or might not attract more voters — turnout was also dismal in the Democratic primary during the 2010 gubernatorial election — but at least it wouldn't be a waste of money.

However, that wouldn't solve a more fundamental problem posed by the overwhelmingly lopsided voter registration pattern in the city, where Democrats outnumber Republicans 9-1 and members of other parties and unaffiliated voters make up just 12 percent of the electorate. Even if voter turnout were higher, elections would still effectively be decided in the Democratic primary. That's not fair to the Republicans and other voters, who effectively have no say in who will represent them in City Hall, and it does a poor job of registering the preferences of voters in general. Case in point: Councilman William "Pete" Welch got 35 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary, with the rest split among eight candidates. In the general election, he got 87 percent.

Baltimore is not the only city with this problem; Philadelphia, for example, also held elections on Tuesday and saw similarly low voter engagement and equally lopsided results. But some other cities with overwhelmingly Democratic politics managed to hold meaningful elections this week because voters there had adopted alternative ways of choosing candidates than the traditional partisan primary/general election process followed in Baltimore.

In San Francisco, Democrats outnumber Republicans 6-1, but the race for mayor was likely to remain impossible to call for days. In St. Paul, Minn., where no Republican has been elected mayor since 1952, four of the seven city council races were highly competitive, with two still too close to call. In Portland, Me., there are more than three Democrats for every Republican. But after initial counts, just 850 votes out of 19,000 cast separated the first and second place finishers.

The difference is, all three of those cities have adopted instant-runoff voting, in which general elections are not limited to one representative of each party and voters rank candidates in order of preference. If no one gets a clear majority of first-place votes, the lower-ranked candidates' votes get redistributed based on their voters' second choices, and so on, until someone has a majority. It sounds complicated, but predictions of chaos at the ballot box have generally not come true. After all, it's the tallying, not the voting, that's difficult.

The evidence so far suggests that instant runoff does not, by itself, increase turnout. But it does make the general election meaningful, and it has some other big advantages. For one, it obviates the need for (and expense of) multiple elections because voters are able to express their full range of preferences at one time. Because there is no need for a primary, all voters get to choose from all the possible candidates, regardless of party affiliation. And voters need not fear "wasting" a vote on a third-party or lesser-known candidate because their second or third choice candidate can still receive their support.

But it's not the only way cities (and some states) have found to solve the kind of problems Baltimore has experienced. Another possibility is to make the general election a runoff between the top vote getters in the primaries, regardless of party affiliation. In that case, Ms. Rawlings-Blake would have gone up against state Sen. Catherine Pugh, who got more than 17,000 votes in the primary, instead of Republican Alfred V. Griffin, who got fewer than 900. Perhaps the result would have been no different, but pitting the voters' top two choices against one another in a concentrated period would have forced a more focused discussion of the issues than occurred before either the primary or general election. To make such a system fair, the city would also have to adopt open primaries so that voters of either party (or no party) could vote for whomever they choose.

Theoretically, there is no reason the powers-that-be in Baltimore should oppose such changes. By virtue of the long-established preference of voters, Democrats would still likely sweep the elections. And incumbents would still have all the advantages of organization, name recognition and campaign funding they have now. At a time when the city perennially struggles with budget deficits, eliminating the need for one election (or at least making it meaningful) should be welcome. The $1.5 million the city budgeted for this election could surely keep some rec centers open. And it's clear that at least some elected officials recognize that the status quo is not good news for them. City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, who tallied 83 percent of the vote against Libertarian and Republican challengers, lamented after the election, "I wanted a mandate to lead. This is not a mandate."

However, the all-time-low in voter turnout in September's primary hasn't sparked any efforts by city officials to reform the election system, and if history is any guide, they won't. Voters can, however, petition for a charter amendment to enact electoral reform, as they did in 2002 when the City Council was cut down in size and converted to single-member districts. It only takes 10,000 signatures, and given the pioneering efforts of those who used the Internet to help petition the state's illegal immigrant tuition bill to referendum, that should be easy to accomplish. If the "Occupy" protesters camped out in (appropriately enough) McKeldin Square are looking for a cause, working to make local elections more meaningful and reflective of the popular will would be a good place to start.

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