Beginning with the election in November 2018, and providing that voting rights can be maintained for City residents who are  16-17 years old,  noncitizen, or  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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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