On March 1, 2017 the City Council will hold a public hearing on “synchronizing” our elections with State and Federal elections. I support this concept, which would mean moving our elections from odd to even years.
The following link has details: https://documents.takomaparkmd.gov/government/city-council/agendas/2017/council-20170301-1.pdf
Increasing Voter Turnout in Local Elections
Our local Takoma Park elections, which take place in odd years, have a much lower turnout than elections in even years (when Presidential, Gubernatorial, Congressional and Maryland State Assembly races take place). Local turnout has averaged about 10 percent, while it’s been around 40 percent in Gubernatorial years, and over 75 percent in recent Presidential years. I believe higher voter turnout, which both contributes to – and is informed by -- greater community engagement, is a laudable goal for elections at any level. In Takoma Park specifically, with greater voter turnout there’s a likelihood of greater participation by members of our minority communities in electoral and civic affairs. This may also in turn lead over time to greater diversity in the makeup of the Council.
There are no doubt many reasons Takoma Park residents vote less in off-years, but if we can increase turnout while preserving our unique local Takoma Park election features, I think it’s a goal worth pursuing. Synchronizing our elections with the even-year ballots is one way of doing that, and I was pleased that Takoma Park voters endorsed that concept in our 2015 election, with 76 percent voting in a non-binding referendum in favor of the shift, provided we can preserve key local election features, including instant runoff, non-citizen voting, 16 and 17 year old voting, and same day registration.
Progress since the Referendum
The Council has undertaken extensive study and analysis of potential approaches to synchronization in the period since passage of the referendum. We’ve had numerous Council sessions with our local Election Commission and City Clerk Jessie Carpenter; interaction with County and State election officials; and exchanges of information with other communities that have made the switch. I’ve personally appeared twice along with Ms. Carpenter before the Montgomery County Board of Elections to discuss our synchronization plans. After our most recent appearance, the County Board agreed to draft a memorandum of understanding detailing how the County and City would work together on elections if we make the shift to even years.
Now we’re at a point where we need to begin thinking more specifically about moving forward, which would mean the upcoming 2017 Council election would be for a one-year term, with the 2018 election then starting up a new two-year term cycle. As detailed in the above link, we would need to initiate the steps for making appropriate changes to our City charter in March. That process would include another public hearing in April.
It’s vital that we hear from residents before taking those steps, so I’m pleased that this week’s public hearing has been scheduled, particularly since it has become clear that -- to satisfy State and County concerns about synchronization – we would have to have two separate voting rooms at each City voting location (one for our local elections; one for all the others). This requirement wasn’t fully apparent at the time of the referendum. I encourage all residents who are interested in our local election process and its impact on Takoma Park’s municipal policies and civic life to participate in the hearing.
Even-Year Election Details
As noted above, switching our elections to even years would mean voters, depending on when they go to the polls on Election Day, would have to wait in two lines, though the local one would be much shorter, because the ballot would have significantly fewer choices. The 2015 local ballot had only three: Mayor, Councilmember, and the synchronization referendum.
Cities like Ocean City, MD that have tried versions of the split voting system have found little if any drop-off in turnout between the first and second votes. To be fair, Ocean City has only around 7,000 residents and they all vote in the same location. But Takoma Park, with our 17,000 or so residents, would have 4 or 5 voting precincts, so the numbers look manageable.
If local voting takes place at several precincts around the City (as we already do in even-year ballots), we would no longer have a situation in which every voter and all candidates show up to vote, shake hands and talk politics at a single spot (the Community Center) on Election Day. That has a nice, small-town feel, but if it’s counter-balanced by a significant increase in turnout, it’s something I’m willing to give up. It’s true that we would need to hire more Election Day workers, but with sufficient advance publicity I believe we would be able to find the necessary people, and the extra cost would not be prohibitive. There might also be higher expenses for additional voting machines, but again I think we can manage the finances on that point.
Early voting for our local elections wouldn’t be able to take place in the County’s early voting sites (unless we could somehow staff every one of the 10 or 11 such places including those way up-County, which is clearly not feasible). This means that if someone went, say, to the Silver Spring early voting site, he or she would still have to vote separately in Takoma Park (either at our own early voting location, at the regular precincts on Election Day, or by absentee ballot). This raises the possibility of someone missing an opportunity to vote, but again I believe that with appropriate publicity we could overcome that risk.
All of our other local artisanal features would be able to be preserved: non-citizen and 16 and 17 year-old voters, instant run-off, and same day registration.
More Competitive Elections
The debate has centered in part around whether low turnout is caused by lack of competition in local elections, or whether higher turnout could help promote more competitive elections. The answers are far from certain (and maybe our community’s politically homogenous nature is a bigger explanation). But we do know we have little competition now, and I think we’re more likely to get competitive races with synchronization.
For example, I had no intention of running against my Council predecessor Seth Grimes, who did an excellent job on the Council. But had I wanted to, I would have been deterred by the reality that he got somewhat more than 200 votes in both of his elections without any opposition. It’s my guess his vote totals included many people I was friends with, and whom I would have approached to seek support. Assuming I wouldn’t have been able to peel many of them away from him, and not knowing if I could get support from a separate group of 200+ new people who hadn’t been voting in local elections, that would have made the prospect of challenging him daunting. But, if it was a Presidential election year and 1,000 people were going to vote, then I would feel better about challenging an incumbent by creating my own coalition of voters. So the lack of competitiveness is more likely a result than a cause of the low turnout.
In the 2015 elections, there was no clear trend of higher turnout tied to competitiveness. The two highest Council vote getters were Rizzy Qureshi, who ran unopposed, and myself with two opponents. Wards 2 and 3 (where there was no competition) had turnout above 20 percent (as did Ward 1, where there was competition). It’s possible Rizzy got a large vote total because folks were also voting in the contested Mayoral election, but that didn’t produce higher turnouts in other Wards without competition. So Rizzy’s popularity and Ward 3 being the Mayor’s home Ward seem more plausible reasons for the higher turnout there.
In the three highest turnout Wards, which had percentages from 20 – 30 percent, that was still 10 – 20 percent lower than the turnout in non-Presidential years, and way below the 75 percent turnout in the last two Presidential years. So even if we had contested elections in all Wards, and that led to turnouts near 30 percent everywhere, it would be much lower than the expected turnout in a Gubernatorial year and less than half the anticipated numbers for a Presidential year.
As I hope the discussion above makes clear, we face a set of trade-offs. We can increase our voter turnout, but with a diminution of our small town feel on Election Day. Different folks will lean in different directions on this, but with the need for more inclusiveness and a true embrace of diversity a top local challenges, I’m willing to opt for higher turnout.
Will it be a little tougher to get your message out as a Council candidate in the same year that there’s a Presidential election or a high profile U.S. Senate race? Maybe, but I highly doubt Takoma Park residents will ignore local candidates.
As mentioned above, I think local candidates who challenge incumbents will have a bigger potential landscape of voters to choose from, which might mean more work, but also a better chance of success. For incumbents, holding onto their seats might be a little tougher, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. We should have to work hard to stay in office.
We’ll face some challenges in making sure the two lines and the two rooms function properly, and in making sure we get the extra Election Day workers we’ll need. With our strong volunteer and civic spirit I’m confident we’ll be able to do that, and for me a big increase in turnout will make all of those efforts worthwhile.