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Baltimore ballots will include mistake on referendum question, insert to be included with correct language

Voters in Baltimore will have an additional challenge to navigate when casting their ballots this fall: Ballots currently being printed for city voters contain a mistake that’s too late to fix. City Hall is shown in 2019.
Voters in Baltimore will have an additional challenge to navigate when casting their ballots this fall: Ballots currently being printed for city voters contain a mistake that’s too late to fix. City Hall is shown in 2019. (Jerry Jackson / The Baltimore Sun)

Voters in Baltimore must navigate an additional challenge when casting their ballots this fall: Ballots being printed for city voters contain a mistake that election officials say was discovered too late to fix.

The city’s voters will receive an insert with corrected language when they receive their mail-in ballots and notices will be posted in all city voting booths.

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The mistake is in Ballot Question G, one of 11 questions to be put to city voters. It would amend the city’s charter to reduce the number of city council members' votes required to override a mayoral veto.

As the Baltimore City Council weighed that charter amendment it struck language that also would have sought voters' approval to end the mayor’s power to use a line-item veto on the city budget.

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But Ballot Question G on the printed ballots for the Nov. 3 referendum includes an extra line of text about taking away the mayor’s line item budget veto, even though the council removed that proposal.

City Solicitor Dana Moore said the law department is responsible for drafting ballot questions and sending them to the state elections board. She said her department was not aware the council removed a provision of the proposed charter amendment.

“When we wrote up the question, it was wrong because it didn’t capture the amendment,” she said. “We didn’t find out until everything had already been sent to the state for inclusion on the ballot."

In Maryland, the state is responsible for printing ballots. The city and counties had to submit the language for any ballot questions to state officials, and local government attorneys had to certify the ballot questions by Aug. 7.

The State Board of Elections made a final certification of ballots on Aug. 31, after they were proofed by each local election board. The ballots were then handed over Sept. 3 to several printing companies, election officials said during a recent board meeting.

Moore said the law department learned of the error and alerted the state board Sept. 3.

Ballot printing had begun already, so the ballots themselves couldn’t be altered to fix the question, said Nikki Charlson, deputy administrator for the Maryland State Board of Elections.

Instead, an insert with the correct language for Question G will be included with mail-in ballots sent to city voters. During early voting and on Election Day, a notice about the error posted in all city voting booths in-person voters.

This is the insert that will be included with Baltimore city voters' ballots, as supplied by the city law department:
This is the insert that will be included with Baltimore city voters' ballots, as supplied by the city law department:

Maryland is encouraging voters to participate in the November election via mail-in ballots — more than 45,000 city voters already have requested them — but in-person voting centers also will be offered at locations yet to be revealed. Paper ballots will be used in both instances.

Democratic City Councilman Bill Henry, who sponsored the charter amendment bill, said the solution “is what it is.”

The city council can’t require the state to do more than tell voters about the mistake, he said. Even if the state could change the ballot, that might risk slowing down the distribution of ballots, he said.

“We certainly don’t want that,” Henry said.

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Henry said he has consulted local and state officials to ensure that there is no legal argument to be made that the incorrect language becomes law if approved by voters. He was assured that voters are technically being asked to ratify the language passed by City Council, not specifically what is written on the ballot.

Moore said the incident has highlighted the need for better communication between the city solicitor’s office and the city’s Office of Legislative Reference, which is in charge of drafting legislation before the City Council. Moore said the law department wasn’t informed the council had changed the amendment.

“This demonstrates there’s an opportunity here to have closer collaboration and better communication," she said. “We’ll work on that.”

In addition to Question G, Baltimore voters will be asked to weigh other proposed amendments to the city’s charter. They include measures to give the council expanded power over the budget, allow members to remove public officials and establish a city administrator position.

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