Green Party

A stealth election year for Baltimore

In a normal Baltimore election year, Labor Day weekend and the days that follow are among the busiest days of the year: Candidates and supporters wave at street corners; lawns and storefronts are festooned with signs; and campaign ads clog radio airwaves.

The political scene is much more placid right now, for this is no normal city election year.

Because of a political standoff over a change in the city’s election cycle, the primaries – held the second Tuesday in September and long tantamount to coronation in this overwhelmingly Democratic city – were held a year ago.

And the Nov. 2 general election will be the first in city history – and maybe the last – to coincide with the presidential election. That guarantees a turnout much higher than usual in a contest that will feature an enthusiastic Green Party and put 12 incumbent City Council members before the voters for the first time since the disclosure of a federal investigation into the council’s financial dealings.

Although things might be quieter than usual on the streets, they are anything but that at the city elections board, where three temporary workers were recently hired to handle a surge in voter registration.

In the past month alone, election officials have received more than 2,000 registrations, with five weeks to go before the Oct. 12 deadline for the November election.

“Usually a month or so before the close of the books, we’ve been getting a couple of hundred … not 2,000,” said Barbara Jackson, the city’s elections supervisor. “I think it’s a combination of the presidential election combined with the city election, plus a lot of people pushing registrations.”

In addition, the board has received twice that many notifications of address changes.

“That means people want to be ready to vote,” Jackson said. “I’m happy about that.”

31 ballots to cover

Combining the presidential race with the city general election also means the election board will have to prepare 10 times as many ballot styles as usual.

In previous presidential election years, the board had to prepare three ballots – one for each of three U.S. congressional districts that include parts of Baltimore.

This year, it will have to prepare 31 ballots to cover all possible permutations among the city’s precincts with those three districts overlapping the newly created 14 City Council districts. Those districts replaced the six three-member districts after voters approved a restructuring two years ago.

The 14-month gap between last September’s primaries and this year’s general election is also sowing confusion.

“We’ve gotten calls from people wanting to know what day in September the election is,” Jackson said. “We say, ‘It was last year.’ “

That confusion seems to extend to the city’s Internet webmaster. Last week, the Board of Elections site had a spot to click on for primary election results from Tuesday, September 9, 2004.

The gap was created after voters approved a referendum in 1999 to move the city’s general election to coincide with the presidential election. But only the General Assembly is allowed to change the dates of primary elections, and some state legislative leaders refused to go along.

A referendum on the Nov. 2 ballot – approved by the lame-duck council by a 13-5 vote with one abstention and quickly signed by Mayor Martin O’Malley – would return city elections to odd-numbered years beginning in 2007. If it passes, the officials elected in November would serve only three-year terms.

“I don’t want to go back to odd-numbered years, but it’s going to win. Most charter amendments pass,” said Councilman Robert W. Curran, who sponsored the original measure to move the election in an effort to save money and increase voter turnout.

With the last Republican mayor elected in 1963 and the last GOP council member elected before World War II, turnout in the city’s general elections has been as low as about 20 percent. Even turnout in the more competitive primaries has topped 50 percent just once in the past three decades.

By contrast, city turnout in the past five presidential elections has ranged from a low of 55 percent, in President Bill Clinton’s first campaign, to 69 percent, in his second.

“The participation level is going to be up,” said John Willis, senior executive in residence at the University of Baltimore’s School of Public Affairs and an authority on Maryland elections. “When you have an off-year election, you’re going to have low turnout.”

The chief beneficiary of higher turnout in the city, he said, should be Sen. John Kerry, although polls show that the Democratic presidential nominee is comfortably ahead of President Bush in Maryland.

“From a partisan point of view, it helps the Democratic presidential candidate,” said Willis, a former Maryland secretary of state. “The mayor and council will be more engaged than they otherwise would be.”

The Maryland Democrat Party is sponsoring a $75-a-ticket Baltimore Coordinated Campaign fund-raiser for all Democratic candidates at the Bay Cafe in Canton this month. O’Malley, who is planning his own fund-raiser later in the year, said some of the money raised at the party event will be used to bus volunteers to such hotly contested nearby states as Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

“I’m throwing my energy into not only my own re-election but also to the election of John Kerry and the re-election of Senator Barbara Mikulski,” the mayor said.

One reason he can so freely divert his attention is that his best-known potential challenger, Circuit Court Clerk Frank M. Conaway, who had said he would run as an independent, failed to gather enough votes to make it onto the ballot.

Conaway has since said he would run as a write-in candidate. But as of last week, he had yet to register his write-in candidacy with the election board – a sign-up that means his name would be on the official list of write-in candidates posted at polling places.

That leaves O’Malley’s only challengers as Republican Elbert R. Henderson, a state corrections supervisor, and write-in candidateCharles Smith, who received 266 votes as a Democratic candidate in last September’s primary.

Council President Sheila Dixon has a sole challenger in community activist Joan Floyd, who also failed to make the ballot as an independent but has taken the place of Brandon Welch as a Green Party candidate, according to party and election officials.

Council contests

Comptroller Joan M. Pratt is unopposed, as she was in the primary, but all but one of the 14 council districts has a contested race, at least on paper. Among the challengers are 11 Republicans, seven Greens, a Libertarian and an independent. Half the council races have candidates from three parties.

Donald Farber, chairman of the Baltimore Republican Party, which is outnumbered 9-1 in voter registration by Democrats, is under no illusions about the difficulties the GOP’s candidates face. “We’re certainly going to make an effort,” he said.

Ann Forno, co-chairman of the city’s Green Party, is more upbeat. The party is planning a fund-raiser next month on the Constellation for city and state candidates. And though only about 1,300 of the city’s 280,000 registered voters identify themselves as Greens, Forno said the presence of so many third-party candidates on the ballot is “tremendously exciting.”

“These candidates are running to win,” she said.

It remains to be seen whether the campaigns will be affected by the council investigation being conducted by U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio’s office.

DiBiagio subpoenaed council records two days after last September’s primary, though he has since come under fire for saying in internal memos that he wanted indictments by early November.

September 5, 2004