Next Baltimore election delayed for 1 year

The General Assembly on Monday night put the final touch on a measure that delays Baltimore's next local election by a year — aligning the city's voting cycle with the presidential schedule and allowing a one-time, five-year term for MayorStephanie Rawlings-Blakeand other city officials.

Supporters said the measure, which moves the next citywide election to November 2016, could boost turnout and save money.

The change will save the city $3.7 million because it won't have to run its own election, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Department of Legislative Services. The state would save about $270,000.

A spokesman for Rawlings-Blake said the move "has the potential of increasing voter turnout, which was our goal."

Gov.Martin O'Malleysaid he was "inclined to sign" the measure, but enthusiasm for it is hardly universal. A voters rights coalition wants the city to be on the gubernatorial election schedule instead, a change it believes would boost turnout even further.

The switch will extend the terms of Rawlings-Blake and the sitting council by one year. That means she and Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young— who came into their positions after Mayor Sheila Dixon's resignation and served two years before being elected — will hold office for seven years, although they were only elected to a four-year term.

The city's current off-year election schedule has long given Baltimore politicians an advantage over other state elected officials: They were able to hold onto their city seats while seeking state office.

O'Malley benefited from the timing in 2006 when he ran for governor while keeping his title as mayor. More recently,Sen. Catherine Pughwas able to keep her seat in the legislature while waging a mayoral campaign in 2011.

Legislation to move the city's election to the gubernatorial schedule — like the state's 23 counties — was introduced this year by Baltimore Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden. The bill was complex; it would have set city elections in 2016 and moved them again in 2018.

McFadden, the senior member of the all-Democratic city delegation, said he was outvoted after the mayor and most City Council members lobbied the legislature for the presidential cycle.

"I'm firmly convinced the gubernatorial [cycle] is the best way to go and continue to think so," he said.

McFadden believes that turnout would be higher in gubernatorial years and that city voters should go to the polls at the same time as those in the counties.

"Aligning ourselves with the other subdivisions around the state is critical," he said. "We're in a better posture when we do it that way and everyone's on the ballot at the same time."

Also troubling, he said, is the long period between the primary in presidential years and the general election. McFadden noted that in 2016, Maryland would hold its primary in April, and defeated lame ducks could continue making decisions until being replaced at the end of the year. That is disturbing, he said, in a city where winning the Democratic primary is tantamount to election.

McFadden said he is deferring to the will of the delegation majority. "You win some and you lose some. We definitely have to change that [odd year] municipal election," he said.

Also objecting was Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who voted against the bill when it was in his chamber and said the legislation "didn't make sense." He also wanted the city to vote at the same time as other counties.

Rawlings-Blake spokesman Ryan O'Doherty discounted the criticism. "The city has always had a cycle that's not been with the state," he said. "Cities up and down the East Coast also have off-year elections. Cities are different."

When asked about Rawlings-Blake's extended term, O'Doherty said, "That's not a consideration for the mayor. Her consideration was reducing city costs and increasing voter turnout."

The president of a coalition of voters' rights groups said she was disappointed by the General Assembly's decision.

"The gubernatorial cycle debate is not finished," said Millie Tyssowski, president of the Baltimore Election Change Coalition. "Some members think we should go for a referendum."

The coalition studied voter turnout over the past two decades and found that, on average, Baltimoreans cast more ballots in the governor's race than the president's race, Tyssowski said. The coalition was spearheaded by the League of Women Voters and included the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and Citizens Planning and Housing Association.

By keeping the city's cycle out of sync with the rest of the state, a void is created when a city politician steps into state office. This happened in 2006 when O'Malley became governor and then-council president Dixon was elevated to the mayor's office. Rawlings-Blake's peers on the council chose her to succeed Dixon as council president.

"The City Council president becomes the mayor and the City Council selects the City Council president," Tyssowski said. "So there is no voter input into the successor."

Over the years, there have been a number of efforts to move the city's election. Most recently, in 1999, voters set the city's general election to November 2004, putting city officials on the same ballot as the race between President George W. Bushand Sen. John Kerry.

There was a complication, though. The city did not have the authority to move its primary election, and the General Assembly — which can change the primary — refused to go along. That left an odd 2003-04 election cycle, with voters picking candidates in a September 2003 primary and then waiting 14 months before the general election.

The latest campaign to change the city election cycle came after record-low turnout in Baltimore's primary last September. Turnout was also low in the November general election.

Sun reporter Michael Dresser contributed to this report.