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A guide to Baltimore ballot questions and other referendums for Maryland voters

Jeanette Witherspoon casts her ballot at a drop box installed at Morgan State University in Baltimore.
Jeanette Witherspoon casts her ballot at a drop box installed at Morgan State University in Baltimore. (Amy Davis)

After former Democratic Mayor Catherine Pugh resigned in the midst of an investigation into her business dealings, the Baltimore City Council introduced a series of charter amendments that would reshape some of the power dynamics in local government.

So many of these bills were introduced, in fact, that Democratic City Council President Brandon Scott created a new committee to sort through them.

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Voters typically approve ballot questions, barring targeted opposition campaigns. In 2016, for example, all 10 of the city’s charter amendments and bond issues won approval.

Below are the questions Baltimore voters are seeing on their ballots this fall, as well as local referendums for some voters elsewhere in central Maryland.

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Statewide, voters are being asked to consider two questions: One that would legalize sports gambling and another would give state lawmakers a greater ability to modify a governor’s proposed budget.

Baltimore City

Baltimore City voters are asked to decide whether the City Council should have the power to remove the mayor (and other elected leaders) from office due to misconduct. This referendum, Question I, is the charter amendment proposal most clearly tied to Pugh’s corruption scandal.

“We heard loud and clear: People want the council to do something,” Democratic Councilman Kristerfer Burnett said when he introduced the bill in April 2019. At the time, Pugh was on leave as reporters and lawmakers questioned the more than $800,000 in deals she struck with businesses to sell her “Healthy Holly” children’s books.

The council had no power to remove her from office at the time, and Pugh ultimately stepped down of her own accord. Months later, she pleaded guilty to conspiracy and tax evasion.

Another amendment would greatly increase the council’s power over the budget. Baltimore’s charter currently gives the mayor control of spending in the budget process, with the council only able to identify cuts. Should Question F be approved, the council could reallocate money in the budget.

For council members who support this measure, a budget battle that played out in June illustrates why it’s necessary. Amid a national reckoning over policing, the council voted to eliminate roughly $22 million in police spending for this fiscal year. The lawmakers envisioned using the money to open recreation centers on Sundays, increase trauma services and offer Black-owned businesses forgivable loans.

But Democratic Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young balked, saying the police department needs resources to reform itself and address violence. He has the sole power to reallocate funds, and he refused to shift the money to the alternative services identified by the council.

Two ballot questions involve the process by which the council can override mayoral vetoes. Question G would reduce the number of votes the council needs to override a veto from three-fourths of the panel to two-thirds. Question H would give them more time to consider doing so, should the council not have a regularly scheduled meeting during the necessary window. Due to a snafu on the city’s part in drafting the ballot questions, Question G contains outdated language about ending the mayor’s power to exercise a line-item veto on the budget. That’s no longer part of the proposed amendment, and voters are receiving a notice with corrected language along with their ballot.

One of the more hotly debated amendments, Question K, would create a city administrator position to work alongside the mayor and oversee the day-to-day operations of city government. City Council President Brandon Scott has championed this initiative and led the override of Young’s veto of the bill. Scott said the job would “professionalize” city government, though the proposal has been criticized by former mayors.

Scott, the Democratic nominee for mayor, says residents have been clear: "They want structural change in how government operates.”

Question J would give the city auditor subpoena power to compel city employees and other people who receive city funds to produce documents needed for audits. And Question E would require a commission to review the charter every decade to make any needed deletions, additions or revisions.

Baltimore City voters will also be asked to authorize four general obligation bonds (Questions A-D) to pay for $160 million in capital projects.

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Bill Henry, the Democratic nominee for comptroller, recently launched a TikTok campaign to educate voters on the slew of charter amendments up for a vote.

Baltimore County

Baltimore County voters are being asked under their ballot’s Question A whether to give local candidates the option of receiving public campaign financing. Supporters of the measure, placed on the ballot by a 5-2 vote of the County Council, hope it would reduce the influence of special interests on county politics with candidates pledging to accept only small contributions in exchange for matching donations from the public fund.

It would set up a commission charged with figuring out how to fund the program, which would start in 2026.

If approved by voters, Baltimore County would join several other Maryland jurisdictions that offer public campaign financing or plan to. Montgomery County has a system in place, and Howard County’s will begin in 2022. Prince George’s County will institute public campaign financing in 2026. Baltimore City voters approved the creation for a “Fair Elections Fund” via referendum in 2018. Candidates for governor and lieutenant governor are entitled to receive public funds at the state level.

Questions B-J ask voters to allow Baltimore County to borrow money to fund various initiatives including parks and greenways, community college projects and schools.

Anne Arundel County

Voters in Anne Arundel County have numerous charter amendments to consider, thanks to an effort by county officials to amend or eliminate parts of the county’s charter they believe stand in the way of efficient local government.

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Among the proposals is Question E on whether to extend a probationary period for new police officers, firefighters and employees in the sheriff’s office and county detention centers. Right now, officers are on probation for their first four months on the job, with the option for a manager to extend it for another six months.

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The ballot question would extend that window to whatever time is required to complete each department’s entry-level training program, plus 12 months.

Anne Arundel voters are also be asked under Question G whether they want to make the county’s Human Relations Commission permanent. The independent board, which has been around since the 1960s, was largely toothless until 2019, when county officials gave it the power to mediate, investigate and adjudicate housing discrimination issues. Currently, the board exists under county code, but not under the charter. Democratic Councilman Andrew Pruski sponsored the commission amendment to secure the commission’s existence in response to national debates on racism and inequality.

Other proposed charter amendments would change the county procurement process (Question D) and extend the time an administrator or department head can serve in an interim capacity (Question B).

Howard County

The ballot for Howard County voters asks them to consider several proposed charter amendments that were the product of a charter review commission. The commission meets every eight years to make recommendations for improvements to the county’s governing document.

Question C asks voters to expand the classes of people protected from discrimination by the county charter to include “disability, color, national origin, age, occupation, marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, familial status and personal appearance."

The charter, which has been unaltered on the topic since the 1960s, currently has discrimination protections for political or religious opinions or affiliations, race and sex. In the update, the word “sex” would be removed in favor of “gender identity or expression.”

Voters are also being asked to decide whether to shorten the terms of citizen boards from five years to three (Question B) and whether to allow the County Council to set dates for drawing new council district borders (Question A). The current dates for drawing new boundaries in the county charter are based on a state election schedule that had primaries in September; Maryland now has June primaries.

Harford County and Carroll County

Voters in Carroll and Harford counties don’t have any county-specific ballot questions this year.

Baltimore Sun reporter Wilborn P. Nobles III and Baltimore Sun Media Group reporters Ana Faguy and Olivia Sanchez contributed to this article.

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