The Problem With Election Synchronization in Takoma Park
In last November’s city election a strong majority of Takoma Park residents voted in favor of an Advisory Question on whether to hold our city elections at the same time as the county, state and Federal election on condition that the City’s special unique regulations governing our elections could be preserved. These include the 16 year-old voter, the instant run-off vote (IRV), non-citizen voting, our early voting locations and schedule, and our rather simple and easy nominating gathering.
An “Advisory Question” under Maryland law vote does not mandate that the City Council make any particular decision. It simply indicates how residents feel about the proposal and effectively requires the City Council to consider it.
The premise for synchronizing Takoma Park’s election with the State / County / Federal election is to boost turnout. A lot more people vote in the big elections and this logically means there would be a spill over effect.
I have made my position known in opposition to synchronization since Councilmember Tim Male first broached the idea more than a year ago.
What’s wrong with this idea?
Let’s ask the question as to why don’t more people vote in City elections. Inconvenience is certainly not one of them. There are basically two reasons. One prominent person proposed to me that most people are entirely satisfied with how the City is run and how services are delivered. (Or perhaps they are indifferent.)
The second reason is the more serious one: there are usually no seriously legitimate choices on the ballot. Last November, the winners of all seven races for Mayor and the six wards were all pretty well foretold before the election.
In the 2015 at-large mayor’s race, Kate Stewart got 2,169 votes. Her nearest competitor got 264. The ward races went like this between the winner and the nearest competitor:
Ward 1, Kovar 631 to 86.
Ward 2, Male 443 to no opponent
Ward 3, Qureshi 532 to no opponent
Ward 4, Seamans 241 to no opponent
Ward 5, Smith 149 to no opponent
Ward 6, Schultz 206 to 86
In the 2013 election it was much the same. Mayor Bruce Williams and the 6 incumbent councilmembers had no opponents except one and that opponent got 10 votes.
In 2011, there were two close races in Wards 2 and 6 where the outcomes were in doubt, and no opponents in 3 other races. Tim Male won by a whisker against Lorig Charkoudian 351-317. In Ward 6 Schultz won his race 134-111.
In 2009 only two races were contested, of which one was somewhat close with Mayor Williams getting 60% of the vote and Roger Schlegel at 40%.
In 2007, only one race was contested and it was not close.
The pattern is the same election after election. Why should residents vote when there is rarely anyone to choose between? Well-contested elections are the exceptions that demonstrate the problem.
The problem that needs to be addressed is not when the city election is held, but how to make the races competitive so that folks will want to vote.
Synchronization requires amending the City Charter. If we were to do this, without tackling the far more troublesome problem of uncontested races, here’s what will happen. Voters will stand in line to vote in the county, state and presidential races, and then each of us will have to decide whether he or she needs to go to another location to vote a second time for a race that is not likely to mean anything.
In Maryland’s April primary race, voters stood in line for 30 minutes to vote. Who will take the time to repeat the process?
If so many city races are uncontested, why do people vote in such numbers. The reason? Our city election is a big social event. We all come together at the Community Center. All the candidates are there from 7 in the morning to 8 at night. Volunteers set up tables of food. Residents and all the candidates greet each other and talk. While the question of who will win is often not so important, the mere fact of the election and the way it is conducted captures the spirit of Takoma Park. It’s a Takoma Park “thing.”
If we synchronize the election, the spirit of the occasion will be snuffed out. Voting will be scattered to 4 different polling places. Many of the people standing in line with you will not be residents of our city. Ballot counting will be done elsewhere. Mayor and city council candidates may not be around as they may be scooting between polls, especially the mayor. Forget the bonhomie among friends.
Advocates of synchronizing say research shows synchronizing municipal elections boosts voter turnout. But research hasn’t ask these questions: Are the races in other cities strongly contested? Ours rarely are. Are there divisive substantive issues that cause people to vote? Rarely in Takoma Park. Are these partisan elections? Ours are not.
Synchronization may or may not increase the total number of ballots cast. But what would it gain us? If you have no real choices, all the ballots in the world do not prove anything. Is it so we can boast of a fabulous turnout, just like they do in autocratic nations?
The real challenge that we need to address is getting more and better qualified candidates to run in the Council elections. This would be a surefire way to get people to vote and actually make voting meaningful.
It’s a big challenge. Why? The pay is lousy. The hours are long. There is the pressure of responsibility and showing up. Running for office deters some people. The job constitutes a steep learning curve that really never ends. Many people don’t see themselves in a public role; they know they are cut out for other things in life.
On the plus side, it is not a thankless job. I get plenty of thank-you’s and occasional compliments. You do feel like you are making a difference. With the responsibility comes the satisfaction when progress is made. Working with the professional staff is a reward in itself. You meet lots of people you’d never otherwise get to know. You learn a ton of stuff. A certain degree of respect comes with the title. And it can be an ego trip at the same time.
Personally, my biggest satisfaction is being able to actually help constituents with their problems.
How do we get more people to run? Tough question. We can educate residents why the job is interesting, challenging and exciting. We need to aggressively reach out to newcomers and minorities. We could double the pay.
We must avoid synchronizing our election with the big elections because doing so will make it harder to run and more costly. Why? To start with the campaign period will be much longer. A city council candidate will be competing against all the other state, federal and county candidates for yard sign space. Her or his signs and literature will get buried in the shuffle. With all the house parties, election forums, door-knocking and fund raising efforts, and tons of mailers clogging our mailboxes, residents’ focus will be on the big elections, not ours.
In my four elections in Ward 6 I have never spent more than $300 to $400 dollars. That will never be possible again if we synch our election. And good luck in gaining more minority candidates and newcomers to run.
The cost to the city of running our elections will go up because more election judges will need to be hired and trained and more equipment will be needed and transported.
Most worrisome, synchronization means ultimately ceding control of our election processes to the county and/or the state. As Councilmember Jarrett Smith has ably pointed out, the very nature of county and state government is to garner more and more power, money and authority to themselves. The opposite rarely is the case. Former Mayor Bruce Williams who knows about these things, also strongly concurs.
Our city that prides itself on forging its own way and laying down markers for other municipalities to follow, risks voluntary giving up control over its own elections: all for the well-intended but misguided grasp at boosting its total vote count. This goes contrary to Takoma Parks’ character and tradition.