One of the main reasons Baltimore MayorStephanie Rawlings-Blakeprovided for her effort to move the city's primary elections from their current off-year schedule to the presidential election cycle was the idea that it would help boost turnout. The idea, which has been floating around Baltimore and the General Assembly for years, gained significant traction this year in the wake of record-low turnout in the 2011 mayoral primary. Only about 22 percent of eligible voters cast ballots then.
In light of what happened on Tuesday, Ms. Rawlings-Blake might want to rethink her position. Provisional and absentee ballots from the presidential race have yet to be counted, so these figures will change slightly, but the preliminary results show that of the 323,000 city residents eligible to cast ballots for the Democratic and Republican presidential nominees this week, fewer than 45,000 did so. That's 14 percent.
That is not to say that the city should leave its election alone. Holding separate balloting is a significant waste of money — it costs Baltimore about $3.7 million — and this week's election is a significant outlier. The Democratic presidential primary was uncontested, and the Democratic primaries for U.S. Senate and House of Representatives were only barely so. The only race of real significance on the ballot was the Republican presidential primary, and there are so few registered Republicans in Baltimore that they are a mere blip in the turnout statistics. (Curiously, Republican turnout in the city was even lower than the overall figure at a little less than 13 percent.)
However, Tuesday's results underscore the point that presidential primaries do not inherently spark significant interest among Baltimore voters. Over the last three decades, turnout in gubernatorial primaries has, on average, been better than for presidential primaries in Baltimore. Tuesday's dismal showing will only widen the disparity.
Unfortunately, Ms. Rawlings-Blake's support for the presidential cycle has very nearly made the shift a fait accompli. Based largely on her advocacy, both the House of Delegates and state Senate have passed a bill that would set Baltimore's next primary in 2016. All that remains is for Gov.Martin O'Malley to sign the bill, and he said this week that he would be inclined to do so if that is Ms. Rawlings-Blake's wish. If maximizing participation in city elections is actually Ms. Rawlings-Blake's major concern, she should reverse her position and ask Mr. O'Malley to veto the bill. He has until Monday to do so.
The question of turnout should be crucial in this discussion because none of the other reasons proffered for switching to the presidential cycle is a worthy basis for public policy. A spokesman for the mayor this week said it is proper for the city to have its elections at a different time than the state's counties, which hold their elections at the same time as the governor's race, because "cities are different." Perhaps at a time when Maryland revolved entirely around Baltimore, that was true. But those days are long gone. Holding an election at a different time than the counties select their executives and councils does not appear to create an atmosphere of focused attention on city issues. Instead, it has led to apathy.
It also increases the likelihood that the city will be run at times by people the voters did not elect. Because elections for city and state office are held at different times, Baltimore politicians are able to run for state offices or state politicians for city offices, without giving up their seats. That means that when they are successful — as in the cases of Govs. O'Malley and William Donald Schaefer — someone is appointed to fill their terms. Baltimore politicians like that fact and have fought to keep things that way. It's good for them, but it's bad for voters.
There is no rush to address the city's election calendar this year. Baltimore voters are not set to go to the polls again until 2015, which gives lawmakers plenty of time to adopt state Sen. Nathaniel McFadden's sensible proposal to hold one city election on the presidential cycle in 2016 (giving the current incumbents, including Ms. Rawlings-Blake, an extra year in office) and thereafter on the gubernatorial cycle, starting in 2018. Alternatively, the city could hold one more off-year election in 2015 and then switch to the gubernatorial cycle in 2018. That has the disadvantage of costing the city financially but the advantage of making sure no officials hold office for a longer or shorter term than voters bargained for.
It's not too late to stop what would likely be a lasting mistake. Governor O'Malley should veto this legislation and come back next year with a plan that actually achieves the goal of fostering greater turnout for Baltimore elections.