Monday, October 10, 2011

Rockville & Baltimore 2011 Election Controversies // Time to Rethink MD's Municipal Election Calendars?

Maryland Juice recently unearthed mutual acquaintances with Baltimore blogger Adam Meister at Charm City Current. We were therefore excited to discover from a recent blog post, that Mr. Meister shares our passion for pushing higher voter turnout through calendar changes. Specifically, Mr. Meister wants to see Baltimore elect city leaders at the same time as higher turnout races. Baltimore Council candidate Shannon Sneed's write-in campaign (announced today), seems to be putting a spotlight on reforming Baltimore elections. We explain the (much ignored) issue below and note how this relates to recent controversies in Rockville, Maryland elections (ie: Bob Barker and deer hunting or City Council candidate Tom Moore and campaign finance law).

On Tuesday, November 8, 2011, voters in Baltimore, Greenbelt, Takoma Park, Rockville, Gaithersburg, and other Maryland cities will be electing new Mayors and City Councilmembers. Do you live in one of these cities? If so, were you even aware there is an election in a few weeks? Do you care? You can check your local election schedule here.

Many Maryland municipalities hold elections on unusual dates. For example, rather than scheduling city elections during Presidential-Congressional years (ie: 2012, 2008, 2004) or Gubernatorial-Congressional years: (ie: 2014, 2010, 2006), some localities only hold elections when no statewide or federal offices are on the ballot. This typically means the elections are held in odd-numbered years.

The Case for Off-Off Year City Elections: The argument for holding local elections by themselves is that this prevents Presidential, Congressional, and Gubernatorial races from drowning out local issues. But I think this is already happening (are you paying attention to the municipal races?), so we are not getting any additional benefit from the low turnout elections. Some would alternatively argue that low turnout is good, because voters are uninformed about local issues and will simply vote based on party affiliation or name recognition. Taken at face value, these arguments *could* make sense in a very homogenous community, but they become very problematic in the race, party, and class context of many Maryland communities.

The Virginia Example: Let me give you an example from (my favorite place) Virginia. Our former confederate neighbors don't just hold local races on the off-off-year calendar -- Virginia even holds Gubernatorial and State races on lower-turnout cycles. I've always had a suspicion that in racially polarized Virginia politics, putting the state offices on an off-off calendar was intended to suppress African American influence. Perhaps a reader is familiar with the legislative history for this calendar? My theory would be that Virginia's black voters would have higher turnout in federal election years, but white voters would make up a greater share of voters in off-off years. Indeed, it isn't difficult to see various legacies of Jim Crow Virginia policies that have been grandfathered into the modern era.

Selling Democracy/Death of Local News: The problem more generally is this -- if voters are the customers in a Democracy, don't we want to keep the store open when most customers are likely to be buying? If so, November 8, 2011 is a terrible choice to open for business. It is a guaranteed slow sales day. For whatever reasons (ie: issues, media coverage, voter outreach, party spending, etc.) most voters only consistently turn out for the bigger races; few voters turnout solely for local elections. This makes me very skeptical of the "more attention for local issues" justification for off-off-year elections -- especially because local and municipal political coverage is dying out nationwide. In fact, even as blogs like this one try to fill the vacuum in coverage, it is clear that we are catering to a niche audience, and it seems doubtful that unlikely voters are consistently reading this type of news.

Takoma Park Example: For example, Takoma Park (where I was born) has 17,000-18,000 residents, but its Council elections often have turnout in the dozens. So for a very small number of voters, it is true that there is a hyper-focus on local issues -- but it is hard to see how this system will provide for the input of the thousands of poorer residents (ie: along the New Hampshire Ave corridor) that only vote in the higher turnout elections? Indeed, the liberal Takoma Council actually has many good public servants, but I hope you see my point (especially as city resources shrink).
Rockville Controversies: This vacuum of interest (from the media and politicos) about municipal elections is an unfortunate and increasingly common problem. Earlier this year, Maryland Juice became interested in Rockville's elections, but mainly because activists and politicos like Dr. Carol McCormick and Tom Moore started turning to this blog to gain attention for Rockville city issues.

Dr. McCormick has been crusading to stop deer hunting proposals in Rockville, Maryland, while City Council candidate Tom Moore is pushing both to get news outlets to cover the local races and to highlight his discovery of a campaign finance loophole in Rockville. Mr. Moore has been beating the drums to point out how it seems current city election law prohibits unlimited contributions from candidates' spouses -- yet this seems to be how Rockville politicians have been funding past campaigns. Sean Sedam from the Rockvile Patch covered the issue last week, and the Patch has followed up with rebuttals from a Rockville Councilmember and a guest column by Mr. Moore on the controversy. We reprint Tom Moore's original letter below, as it provides background information on the Rockville campaign finance controversy.

Playing devil's advocate, I should note that the low turnout elections do give small numbers of dedicated activists a chance to make a difference, since it is easier to impact a lower turnout election. Indeed, Dr. McCormick has been able to draw great attention to deer hunting in Rockville. We should note, however, that she had to recruit former Price is Right host Bob Barker to generate interest in her story.

In conclusion, it seems that whether or not you have a strong opinion on election calendars, it has been a long time since we have approached this question with a fresh eye. In the meantime, I am publishing Dr. Carol McCormick's follow-up letter on the Rockville deer saga on Maryland Juice's Facebook page. Also, you can read Tom Moore's letter on the Rockville campaign finance controversy, below.

P.S. If you want to know about other major issues in Rockville right now, you can see the agenda for tonight's joint meeting between the Rockville Mayor & Council with the Montgomery County Council.

City Council Candidate Tom Moore's Letter to Rockville Board of Elections


  1. Montgomery County municipal elections should be scheduled in years when there is not a Gubernatorial election.

    Why? Becuase it allows local candidates to take "free-shot" runs for statewide office. When Mayor Martin O'Malley ran for Governor in 2006, He was guaranteed to keep his mayoral job no matter the outcome of that election. Whereas Doug Duncan had to abandon his position to seek the Governorship. So this gives Baltimore candidates more incentive to take a shot at Governor.

    Maybe that's why we haven't ever had a Governor from Montgomery County.

  2. @Saqib -- That's an interesting point. I should be clear though, I don't consider the Montgomery County (or Baltimore/Prince George's) races as local races. One key differentiator is that the major county races are in the same electoral administration scheme as the federal races, but the real city races (ie: Takoma) are run by municipal staff with their own rules.

  3. ...I am mainly against having odd-year municipal elections.

  4. @ David I agree. In Cheverly where I live it gets even more confusing as the Mayor is elected every three years (so somethings in even years and sometimes in odd years) and the council elected every two years. To add to the confusion the elections often occur in April or May when voters just won't be at the polls.

  5. Municipalities have complete flexibility to set up their election schedules and rules the way they want. There is quite a bit of variation. Rockville elects the Mayor and entire Council every two years for two year terms while Gaithersburg staggers the elections every two years for their 4-year Mayor and Council terms. Kensington has elections every year with staggered two year terms. Takoma Park has Council wards while most other municipal councils are all at-large. Also, municipal elections are non-partisan and lack a primary. It would be interesting to see more analysis to find out why the turnout is so low in the large municipalities - the smaller municipalities like Kensington often have very high turnout. Most of the smaller munis still have their elections in the spring - I believe that over time the larger ones have moved theirs to November.