EDITORIAL: Vote “NO” on the ballot question

Beginning with the election in November 2018, and providing that voting rights can be maintained for City residents who are [1] 16-17 years old, [2] noncitizen, or [3] on parole or probation for felony conviction, and that instant runoff voting and same-day voter registration can be maintained, the City of Takoma Park municipal elections for Mayor and Councilmembers should be changed to the Tuesday following the first Monday in November in each even-numbered year in order to coincide with Maryland statewide general elections.


Takoma Park Needs Be Wary of Disenfranchising Voters

The question on the Nov. 3 Takoma Park ballot asks voters to affirm moving Takoma Park elections to even-numbered years to coincide with county, state, and federal elections. On the surface this seems like a no-brainer. But this is a half-formed idea, no matter how well intentioned. And the result could well lead to lower voter turnout and less participation from key groups of residents.

The ballot question amounts to this: “We don’t know if this can be done, but would you be in favor of it?”

We agree that voter turnout is depressingly low in Takoma Park, particularly in wards with large tenant populations. Takoma Park has sought to enfranchise more residents by including noncitizens, adolescents, and people on parole. These gestures of inclusiveness could lose nearly all value if city voting shifts to state polls. And the logistics of collecting city votes at a precinct with multiple wards and non-city voters seems Quixotic.

voters

Endangered: The scene outside the Community Center polling place, November, 2011.

Proponents say voter turnout would increase if we reschedule city election days to coincide with general statewide elections. But they don’t know how of if that could be done, or what it would do to the city’s progressive election traditions and laws. They haven’t looked into it.

The proponents need to give voters a more concrete proposal. They need to speak to the county and state authorities and get on paper exactly how the city’s non-standard voting features can be accommodated—or not—and the exact form of voting the city would have. THEN put it on the ballot.

Goodness knows how the council will interpret a “yes” vote. The language says they will only go forward if the city’s unique voting rights and instant-runoff voting can be “maintained,” but who knows how well they will hew to that if they think they have a mandate?

Lack of assurances

No assurances have been given that the city will keep its simple, small town process for candidates to get onto the ballot. As Mayor Bruce Williams has said, “We have a nominating caucus as opposed to signature petitions—it only takes a nominator and a second to get on the ballot. We don’t have to register with the state.” And the state process starts much earlier than the city’s. We don’t need a long, drawn-out campaign distracting the city council from its regular work. Our current four-to-five week election season fits us perfectly.

nomcaucus09

A thing of the past? The city’s nominating caucus, 2013.

No assurances have been given that the council would maintain the Community Center as the city’s one polling place. If somehow the city and state voting systems could be combined, we would lose our central polling place. The Community Center would no longer be the only gathering point where all voters go and where all the candidates go to button-hole them.

No assurances have been given that city residents only need to vote once. The council could well construct a Frankenstein’s monster of a voting system, requiring voters to get into two lines—one for the city ballot, one for the general ballot. Or, the new system might require residents to go to two polling places: the precinct voting station and the city’s.

There are four general-election voting precincts in Takoma Park. Precinct borders have no relation to the city’s six ward borders. In most cases ward voters would be split between precincts. That would be a nightmare for ward candidates, and a worse nightmare for mayoral candidates. It would be a loss of community-feeling for everyone.

A thin majority

Voters should know that only four out of seven council members voted to put the question on the ballot. Mayor Bruce Williams was strenuously opposed. Also opposed were Councilmembers Jarrett Smith and Fred Schultz.

If Kate Stewart is elected as mayor and if Peter Kovar wins the Ward 1 seat, there will be a five to two majority in favor of changing our election day. Unless voters vote “NO” on this question, the council majority will undoubtedly make the change with no regard to further objections.

politicians

Candidates and others chatting with city resident Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot outside the city election’s sole polling station, November, 2011.

Board of Elections against it

The Takoma Park Board of Elections considered this and several other voter reforms. In it’s March 11, 2015 report the board “The Board has discussed this issue and on balance recommends against synchronization . . . ”

The board’s reasons are many of those set out in this editorial. In addition they note all the staff work and time required to set up the change. The city charter would have to be amended, there would need to be “substantial discussion and coordination with the Montgomery County Board of Elections,” “development and execution of substantial voter education” and “an examination of the potential issues caused by the misalignment of ward and precinct boundaries.”

“Further, we feel that having our own election gives our City its own identity; if we wrap our election in to State and Federal elections this uniqueness would be lost.”

Well meaning, but . . .

Proponents’ reasons for changing the date are well-meaning. They want to increase voter participation, particularly among the city’s less-represented groups: tenants, low-income, minorities and/or immigrants.

This is only one of many attempts to engage more people with city governance and politics. The council extended the voter-registration period up to and including election day. They’ve given the vote to non-citizens, felons on parole or probation and 16-17 year-olds.

Unfortunately ALL of these are stabs in the dark. Nobody has asked these unengaged people why they aren’t engaged. There have been no surveys or polls conducted. (CHEER, is about to conduct a focus group that, we’re told, will raise this and other questions.)

election2-03

Youth voter in the 2013 city election.

This is an important issue, one that is worth dealing with the right way. The right way is to FIRST find out why certain demographics are not engaged. Then the city can intelligently deal with fixing the problem.

The question’s proponents make much of statistics showing that when municipal elections are combined with general elections, voter numbers sharply increase. We don’t dispute that, but it’s not necessarily the same as engaging those additional voters. It is not engagement when a person in the voting booth encounters offices and candidates for the first time on a ballot.

No change on the dais

That’s one reason council member Jarrett Smith opposes moving voting day. As a representative of Ward 5, which usually gets low voter turnout, and has a large population of tenants, low-income, minorities and/or immigrants. Smith, who is African American, says that changing the voting day will not change who sits on the city council dais. It will not encourage tenants to get involved in city affairs, nor enable minorities to run for office.

Councilmember Fred Smith, whose Ward 6 also has low voter-turnout and a large tenant population, opposes the question also. He debated the proposal’s author councilmember Tim Male on the ballot question at the Oct. 21 Voice Election Forum.

election2-09

Candidates and residents observe the November, 2013 city vote-counting procedure, a feature that could be lost if the city election is joined with the general election.

When Mayor Bruce Williams opposed placing the question on the ballot, Sept. 8, he said, “All of these [unique election features] we can do because we control our own elections process. We aren’t beholden to the state to conform to their process, and I think this has given us the chance to innovate, and to lead the way toward better and more inclusive elections. We lament our inability to control our own destiny in so many other cases—tax duplication, certain zoning decisions, liquor control, state highway control—why would we want to give up control to the state for our elections? Why?”

He gave a number of other reasons to vote “No” on the question in his statement.

We join Mayor Williams and councilmembers Jarrett Smith and Fred Schultz in urging Takoma Park residents to vote “no” on the ballot question.”

Eric Bond, Senior Editor

Bill Brown, Managing Editor

12 Comments on "EDITORIAL: Vote “NO” on the ballot question"

  1. Tom Gagliardo | October 30, 2015 at 6:25 pm |

    I voted early and I voted NO. Voter turnout is low in Takoma Park city elections (although that wasn’t the case in the early and mid-1980’s) for many reasons including (1) most elections are uncontested ( 5 of 7 are this year), (2) voters don’t see that electing x rather than y will make much, if any difference, and (3) there is little or no effort to register voters, particularly new residents and in areas where voter turnout is historically low. Changing the election date is being sold as an easy fix and a way to avoid the dint of effort required to address the above. Consider also the confusion and uncertainty, which was noted in the editorial, the opposition of Mayor Bruce Williams and the election board and the fact that city council candidates will have to compete for attention with candidates for offices from the House of Delegates to the White House. I voted no on the ballot question and for Ward 1 candidate Victor Thuronyi because he clearly articulated his views on getting more people involved in the political process.

  2. I strongly agree. We had huge turnout in Ward 3 in April (talk about off off year) because we had Kate and 2 other passionate candidates running for Council. The key is giving us a reason to vote. I would do two things:

    —Encourage formation of advisory committees in each ward to give people a taste of the issues and process.

    —3-5 advisory referenda questions on each ballot.

  3. I am skeptical that the entrenched social problems in Takoma Park will be rectified by the magical thinking of not switching (or switching). It will be good to see what happens with this election. There are easily 12,000 voting eligible residents now and the election will be a measurable test of the changes already implemented in the election process. At least for immigrant families I have worked with for the last 20 years, there are other priorities driving their daily lives —and it is not the Takoma Park election. For the ones that are undocumented, Takoma Park has yet to convince them that the City can assure their privacy and safety with the current election — too much is still at risk for them. So possibly, there are some bigger issues than whether Takoma Park can finesse a switch to even years. The editorial does highlight that this current election process may just be more of the same — Takoma Park window dressing — making for good fuss and photo ops but lacking substantial change in many people’s lives.

  4. The reality is evident from the pictures accompanying this editorial: even though Takoma Park residents are mostly people of color, those people of color do not vote in local elections. This reality hit home for me while volunteering for Jarrett Smith’s race in 2012, when he became the first African-American to represent the predominantly African-American Ward 5. Most, not just many, of the residents we encountered had never met a candidate for council before. Many did not even know the city had a council.

    Saying no one asked non-voters how to increase turnout simply is not true. I have reached out to underserved populations in the city over a number of years and that outreach is why I support syncing local elections to state and federal elections. Jarrett’s opposition to syncing the vote is because he doesn’t think syncing goes far enough, he’d rather make voting mandatory. Although I do support the principle behind compulsory voting, I am not convinced it is constitutional.

    The truth is that 2012 local turnout was 76% for the national election compared to 10% in 2013 for the local election. The fact is that syncing local elections to state/federal elections raised turnout from 17% to 42% in Richmond, VA (another “majority-minority” city) and doubled turnout in Ocean City, MD. Similar changes have been passed in Baltimore, Cumberland, and other Maryland communities.

    If we want Takoma Park to be a truly inclusive community, we have to empower ALL of its residents. Syncing is not a silver bullet, but it is a proven solution to increasing turnout in general and among communities of color in particular.

    I have spent several years working with white communities and communities of color in our city, county, state, and nation. Locally, that means leading Making a New United People (serving over 500 teens across MoCo and PG), managing Lunch & Learn (the largest summer meals site in MoCo serving over 100 elementary school students), working with Jarrett his bill allowing parolees to vote and efforts to expand food pantries to Maple Av and Houston Av, and a wide variety of programs specifically targeting the city’s low income population and communities of color. At the same time, I have served on city committees for the environment and public safety, which have been mostly white. The unfortunate truth is that this is a deeply divided community. Middle-income people of color mix freely with middle-income whites, but this is simply not true for the larger population of lower-income people of color. You really can name the folks (i.e., Howard Kohn, Bruce Baker, Cindy Dyballa, Jen Wofford) that regularly cross race and class lines in our city, which means that far too few do it. I put the blame on society’s structure, not people’s hearts.

    The greatest challenge I have had is bringing together adults. I focus so much on youth development personally because it has been much easier to get truly diverse coalitions together to help children of color. I firmly believe that increasing black and brown voter turnout (and we KNOW that syncing of elections increases that) may be the simplest way to get the voice of black and brown adults taken seriously in the community. It will force our leaders to seek out and listen to everyone, not just the folks that come to meetings.

    I believe the shenanigans with Hampshire Tower’s 60% rent increases would have gone differently if city officials thought those 200 households voted. Less than 40 people there voted in 2014 (state election), but that is much higher in 2013 (local). If the 78% that voted for Obama had voted in the city elections over the past few cycles, I believe those residents would have had stronger representatives every step of the process, from initial agreement in 2006 to the 15% rent increase “compromise” the county negotiated this month.

    I ask that you please publish the letter from the ACLU of Maryland to Mayor Williams supporting the election date changes, which I co-wrote, detailing multiple reasons with syncing makes sense.

  5. Here’s my take on Question 1. I voted “for” the change in election dates.

    End Datemandering in Takoma Park: A Vote For Question 1

    This Tuesday, Takoma Park voters will be asked whether the city should change the date of its elections, thereby ending the current practice of “datemandering” for its municipal races. I strongly support a vote “for” Question 1, which would move city elections from odd-numbered years to even-numbered years, so that they are held at the same time as Maryland’s higher turnout presidential and gubernatorial elections.

    Indeed, whenever voter turnout drops, political scientists and pundits alike decry declining civic engagement. As a result, we inevitably hear calls for elaborate proposals designed to boost voter turnout — think everything from automatic voter registration and multi-party candidate debates, to campaign finance and redistricting reform. And while I support many of these election reform proposals, simultaneously changing the date of elections is certain to have a far more immediate and noticeable impact on voter turnout.

    Notably, the problem of weak electoral participation is far worse in odd-year city races than for even-year congressional election cycles. So if you think its a problem that fewer voters participated in Maryland’s last gubernatorial election than in our last presidential race, you should be aware that the problem is exacerbated in city elections. Consider that in the 2013 Takoma Park Mayor’s race, fewer than 1,000 people voted, in a city of over 17,000 residents. Meanwhile, turnout from Takoma Park residents in the 2014 gubernatorial race was nearly five times the municipal election turnout, with over 5,000 residents voting for governor. Turnout from city residents in the 2012 presidential race was higher yet, with over 7,500 people from Takoma Park voting that year. As a result, I think it is fair to call any election that is scheduled on a date other than the high watermark presidential years, a “datemandered” election.

    In neighboring Virginia, many voting rights advocates have for years seen that state’s odd-numbered election years as an artificial way of suppressing the much higher turnout the state witnesses in presidential years. But that’s not to say that ending datemandering is a partisan concern. In fact, both Baltimore and Ocean City have now moved their election dates, along with the red state of Kansas.

    The typical argument against reform from supporters of datemandering is that the low turnout elections bring out “higher quality” voters, who are more informed about local issues that would be ignored during a Presidential race. But that sounds awfully similar to the discriminatory poll tests of yore. And to be frank about modern-day campaigning, it is critical to acknowledge that candidates typically spend the bulk of their resources engaging residents who have a record of voting in past races. As a result, those who vote in presidential elections but not off-year city races are much less likely to be targeted by city candidates. We can do better than this, and changing the election date will create incentives for Takoma Park candidates to contact far more future constituents.

    Policymakers should think twice about holding elections on unusual dates, especially when other known dates will yield far higher voter participation. Thankfully, the City of Takoma Park is doing just that. I plan on voting “for” Question 1 this Tuesday, November 3rd.

    Delegate David Moon
    Maryland House of Delegates, District 20

  6. Delegate Moon’s statement totally ignores the points raised in the Voice editorial, instead setting up a straw-man argument that he claims is the “typical argument against” date changing. This alleged argument was not mentioned in the Voice editorial. Nor have any of the local politicians and residents who oppose this ballot raised it.

    Delegate Moon is incorrect when he says “fewer than 1000 people voted” in the 2013 mayoral race. Actually it was 1112 people who voted in that mayoral race, and a total of 1762 people who voted in all races. There were no contested races on the ballot, except one in which the candidate had withdrawn. There was a write-in candidate for mayor, but it was not enough of a threat to bring out many voters. Mayor Bruce Williams won re-election by 990 to 63 (and another 59 random write-ins).

    The reason for low voter turnout in 2013 was not the election day date, it was the lack of contested races. Changing the date will have zero effect on that perennial problem.

    Delegate Moon’s failure to address the legitimate issues is disappointing. So is his apparent willingness to ride roughshod over his Takoma Park constituents concerns and the city’s unique voter reforms and traditions that could be lost.

    The Editors

  7. The turnout in municipal races ALWAYS trails the turnout in presidential races, so you can’t blame that on uncontested races. That’s not just true of Takoma Park, its true across the country. And the idea that consolidating city and state elections is a problem worth blocking reforms over is a red herring. To be fair, it will be a challenge to shift the date, but that is not an impossible hurdle.

    In fact your same argument could be used to oppose early voting, same day voter registration, and other reforms that would create election administration challenges — but that’s not a reason to block reform. Otherwise, what we’re left with is city elections that are basically a private club for a handful of residents. That’s not right.

    Lastly, I wrote the piece above before you published your editorial. It is not meant to rebut your particular argument (which I find highly flawed). The argument about “uninformed voters” is one I’ve heard from politicians opposed to the date change. It is not something I made up.

    In any case, I hope the vision of inclusive government prevails on Question 1. Thanks for hearing me out!

    – David Moon

    • Delegate, you still have not addressed the points against this question. Do you understand the complications that changing the date and merging (somehow) into the general elections would cause? The only way to retain Takoma Park’s unique election reforms (non-citizens voting, 16-17 year olds voting, felons voting, same-day voter registration, Instant Runoff Voting), and our small-city traditions (simple candidate nomination/registration process, single polling place) would be to ask voters to vote TWICE – in two different places. Not all voters are going to get in line twice. It would likely be the “usual suspects” or the “quality voters” you mention who will go to the trouble. City voting numbers would be about the same if not depressed.

      We wish you would give careful consideration to the reasonable concerns this ballot question raises – and leaves unanswered. At the very least, hold off and bring us a concrete proposal that spells out exactly how our voting system would change and how all these issues would be resolved.

      The Editors

  8. One last point I should note is that I pulled the turnout figures from the MDVAN voter file. They may be off by a smidge, but the overall ratios are accurate.

  9. No doubt there will have to be serious thought put into election administration challenges to maintain the city’s ranked ballot, noncitizen voting, and 16-year-old voting. But to be clear, this is an advisory referendum and hopefully the results will tell the City Council whether or not to even proceed looking into how to solve these challenges. If the referendum is approved, but the date change can’t be made while upholding these practices, I’m not sure I’d endorse the city moving forward with the date change.

    However, it doesn’t seem this conversation will even continue if voters don’t signal they are interested in this reform. A vote “for” Question 1 is merely advisory and tells the City Council to start looking into this. It will not actually implement a change. I can’t believe that the Councilmembers (some of whom are strong supporters of 16-year-old voting, instant runoffs, and noncitizen voting) will just willy-nilly throw out all the reforms to change the date if all the other city reforms cannot be accommodated.

    Moreover, part of the reason for my downplaying the election administration changes being an obstacle to reform is through my perspective hearing the same arguments made at the state level. Election administrators routinely complain about the difficulty of implementing ANY good government reforms. The Assembly is currently contemplating a switch to automatic voter registration (as Oregon is doing), and it will mean a drastic change in election administration. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. The same arguments of implementation challenges were raised for early vote, same day voter registration, online voter registration, 16-year-old voter pre-registration, paper ballots, and many other election reforms that Maryland has now adopted. Basically, changing election practices always causes a headache — but sometimes it is worth it.

    In this instance, the question you raise is whether the election administration hurdle of having consolidated polling locations (and therefore a few extra ballot types in Takoma Park precincts) is SUCH an imposition on democracy that we should hold elections where far fewer people turnout. To me that is not a strong case to intentionally maintain low turnout. It is already the case that school board districts don’t align with County Council districts, for example, leading to multiple ballot types at polling locations. The sky has not fallen.

    A vote “for” Question 1 simply allows the policy debate and research into implementation to continue. And if it can’t be done easily, it seems to me that will be a debate for a future City Council meeting.

  10. One last note I would make is that other jurisdictions which have/had noncitizen voting have been able to maintain dual voter registration rolls without serious incident. And again, this is not just a city issue, there are some changes being proposed at the state-level next year which may rehash the same debate the city is currently witnessing. (And in my note above, I meant to say that Delegate and Council districts do not align — as opposed to school board and council). This just means that there are multiple ballot types at the precincts. With the change proposed here, we’d have different ballot type and different voter rolls, but theoretically, you could still have one check-in line and one ballot per voters. All of this used to be simpler when we had electronic ballots, but at least we have electronic voter rolls now.

Comments are closed.