If we’re serious about improving the voting process, don’t stop at Question K.
Last month, voters in Baltimore City approved Question K, also known as House Bill 250, formerly known as Council Bill 12-0023, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and the Baltimore City Council’s flawed solution to a problem that didn’t exist. For too long, Baltimore City suffered from the advantage of being the only city or county in the State to have an election cycle all its own. Suffered from the burden of not having to compete with national races for local press attention. From a disastrous lack of voter turnout that could only be blamed on the President for not appearing on the ballot. This Bill sought to correct these terrible problems, as well as save the city around $3 million every 4 years, and increase voter turnout, by shifting all City-wide elections from the old quadrennial odd-year voting cycle and aligning it with even-year Presidential Elections. And while this surely didn’t factor in their decision to approve it or not, all Baltimore City politicians are granted a free year in office by supporting this change.
So the solution to these problems was put towards the voters in the form of Question K, and it was approved, if just narrowly, by 109,000 votes and 54 percentage points. Actually, City voters approved all Ballot Questions, all 13 of them. Yes beat No at an average rate of 58%, the lowest margin of victory being 41%. We even passed all 7 State Referendums. Now that Question K has freed us from all the advantages we used to face, and even save us the $3 million it was intended to, will it really increase turnout?
The Mayor and City Council are right to try and duplicate the turnout we’ve seen during the two most recent Presidential Elections, but we don’t elect our officials during General Elections, we elect them during the primaries.
When President Obama first appeared on a Ballot in 2008, turnout in the primary peaked at over 113,000, but in the most recent presidential primary held this past September, only 47,000 people voted for president, similar to the 56,000 who came out in 2004. In contrast, more than 68,000 people voted in the 2010 gubernatorial primary, and 76,000 in 2006. But the Mayor’s race was an even greater draw, bringing out 88,000 to vote in 2007 and a more modest 74,000 in 2011. We know 2008 was an outlier in terms of voter turnout and those conditions will never be recreated. A greater argument existed to move the election cycle forward a year to the Governor’s cycle but for some reason that we went in the opposite direction.
Regardless, it happened. Question K sailed through and there’s nothing that can be done about it now. But the fact that this Bill was even introduced proves that the Mayor and the City Council recognize that the electoral process in Baltimore City can be and should be improved, and that they are willing and eager to do so, as we saw when they unanimously approved Council Bill 12-0017R, a Resolution in support of the change in voting year, with an explicit desire “to improve elections for City offices”.
So let’s take their word for it. Let’s assume they were being sincere, that the election process is important but imperfect and there are steps we can take to improve it, and that this wasn’t just a cynical attempt at extending their terms in office. If so, then the problems that weren’t solved by Question K are still relevant and we should be doing more to correct them. So where do we start?
The next round of elections will be held in 2016, and by that time Mayor Rawlings-Blake and Council President Jack Young will have held those seats for 7 years, while receiving permission from the voters only once. But when you cast a vote in the Council President’s race, you do so understanding that the person you elect will be next in line to be mayor, should something happen to the current one, like a plea bargain on corruption charges. Everyone is aware going in that the Council President is next and that’s something we can consider ahead of time before casting our votes. But the same can’t be said of the person that replaces the Council President. We have 14 districts in Baltimore that are responsible for electing 14 Council members, any one of which could end up becoming the second most powerful person in the City, while requiring no input from the voters.
The process for filling an empty Council seat is even worse.
When a Council seat becomes vacant, the remaining members are left to decide, on their own, which local insider they would like to become their new colleague. But what incentive do other members of the Council have to fill that seat with someone who would put the interests of their district ahead of the interests of the Council? Why elevate someone who would interfere with the agendas of other Council-members if they feel like their District would be hurt by popular legislation? Why would they ever fill the seat with someone whose commitment to their district would inevitably conflict with the status-quo that other members of the Council have worked so hard to develop?
Occasionally the system works out alright, though. When Jack Young moved up to become Council President, former Councilman and Mayoral candidate Carl Stokes was asked to fill his seat. There are a lot of different opinions out there regarding Carl Stokes, but I’ve found him to be one of the most responsible members of the City Council since his return to the job. He’s proven himself to be one of the sole voices of dissent in this city and we don’t have enough of those.
But sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes, the system proves itself to be as corruptible and self-serving and we’ve always feared.
This was the case in early 2011, in what has to be the most disrespectful act of electoral cynicism in decades, when, after 27 years on the job, Councilwoman Agnes Welch decided she was incapable of making it through that last bit of her final term, and her son William “Pete” Welch was seamlessly inserted into the role, a mere 9 months before the 2011 primary.
Many of us at the time were capable of seeing through this bypass of the voters, but most of us aren’t members of the City Council and our opinions don’t count. So the Welch Family Seat was passed on to Pete, with everything that involves, most importantly, the ability to run the following September as an incumbent, with all the political, fund-raising and endorsement opportunities that come with it.
The Seat didn’t go to Michael Eugene Johnson, who received a quarter of the vote in 2007, the last time voters in the 9th District were asked who they would like to represent them. Nor did it go to Abigail Breiseth, a public school teacher who made education the focus of her campaign, who would gain the endorsement from The Sun when she went on to run against Pete in 2011. Instead it was given to the Councilwoman’s son, whose most news-worthy accomplishment prior to becoming a member of the Baltimore City Council was shooting off a gun during a dispute over how much to pay a poll worker on Election Day 1999, both acts illegal. Like almost every other incumbent on the Council in the last 20 years, Councilman Welch successfully defended the seat he was gifted a few months earlier, and Pete went on to become the turnstile everyone in the Council hoped he would be.
Being someone’s son, or long-time staffer, or even both, shouldn’t be enough to earn someone the responsibility of sitting on the Baltimore City Council. Maybe you would argue that Pete had his own credentials, and deserved the seat as much as anyone, but Councilman Bobby Curran didn’t mention anything like that when he commented on his reason for supporting Councilwoman Welch’s son, “You very rarely get to pay back people in politics for what they’ve done for you.” Neither did Councilman Bill Henry when he said “I would like to choose based on positives among the four candidates,” and then voted against him. Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke wouldn’t even consider him.
Agnes Welch wasn’t the only name on the ballot in 2007. Michael Eugene Johnson may have only won 24% of the vote, but that’s 24% more than Pete Welch got, and when that seat became vacant it should have been awarded to Mr. Johnson, the candidate the good people of the 9th District chose as the second most deserving person to represent them. Awarding the seat to the candidate that came in second needs to become the standard for every vacant seat. What better way to prevent what we witnessed last year from happening again? What better way to energize the 2016 Elections than to give even the most deeply entrenched districts something else to compete over, like a race for second place that actually means something. What better way to encourage someone to come out and vote, even if the candidate they’re supporting doesn’t have a chance at winning. That’s how you increase voter turnout, not with gimmicks like Question K that are intended for people that could vote but choose not to because the president isn’t on the ballot. Best of all, no one needs to rewrite the Charter or wait for a referendum to make this happen. The Council just needs to start respecting the intentions of the voters the next time a seat becomes available.
Developing a fair line of succession isn’t the only major change that Baltimore desperately needs. As beneficial to the City as it would be, the increase in voter turnout from rewarding second place would be a fraction of what we would gain by opening the primary system to independent and unaffiliated voters.
We elect our leaders during the primaries, but primaries are closed and exclusive. By doing it this way thousands and thousands of perfectly responsible citizens who want to vote are forced by the rules of the system to remain separate from it, distant enough from the process to still be able to see it and hear it, and to surely be affected by it, but not participate in it. Many submit, even though they don’t want to, and register to a Party they have no real desire to be a member of. But many don’t, and they stay home and resign themselves to the fact that their vote doesn’t mean anything, even in their own city.
An open Primary system wouldn’t mean that anyone of an opposing Party could vote in another’s, and general elections would still provide a battle ground for the fundamental differences between local parties to go head to head. Republicans can still be Republicans, Greens can be Greens, and so on, but we need to respect those voters who fundamentally disagree with the notion that they have to be a member of a party before they can have a say in who raises their taxes, or closes their nearest fire department, or decides to pay their kid’s teacher less, but that’s exactly what we have in Baltimore.
Republicans, Greens, Libertarians, they made a decision to join a party and nominate a candidate who will compete with all the other nominees on Election Day. That was their choice. Independent voters had their irrelevancy decided for them, and the only way to correct that is by allowing them to be included in the only race that matters, an open and free Democratic primary. Democrats have nothing to fear from independents because if independents were really so different from them, they would be Republicans. Instead they should welcome the opportunity to include so many of their neighbors back into this process, and see it for what it is; a chance to improve the overall product.
But if you’re concerned about the effects of including independent voters, then there’s one more change to Baltimore’s election system that we need to consider; instant-runoff voting. Instant-runoff voting has been around for centuries, and has recently become popular in the kind of progressive cities and countries that care about fair elections. The idea is this; no one wins a seat in government without 50% plus one-vote majority in any race. If a candidate can’t get a simple majority of the electorate to vote for them, they can’t win.
You rank your candidates from favorite to least. If no candidate wins a majority the first time through, then the lowest is eliminated, and any votes for that person are reassigned to the voter’s next choice. This goes on until there’s a winner that more than half of the voters can agree on. Simply put, a vote for Ralph Nader is no longer a vote for George Bush. Nor are you forced into voting for Al Gore if you feel like you’re settling for a lesser candidate that has a better chance of winning.
It’s a beautiful system, one that we would be wise to consider. It accomplishes many of the goals we say we want, most importantly the ability to support lesser-known candidates without compromising your vote by unintentionally supporting a far stronger incumbent. But it also protects us from the possibility of spoilers running in a race for the sole purpose of splitting the vote of another candidate, because what good is a spoiler in a race that requires a simple majority. A spoiler that isn’t serious about winning would likely be eliminated before the final round of voting and becomes irrelevant before they can syphon off votes from a legitimate candidate. Instant-runoff voting-based elections have also proven to be more resistant to negative campaigning, as candidates who depend on this method to win find the downside of attack ads far more problematic in races that require them to win 50%+1 of the vote rather than a far lower threshold like 35%. There are too many advantages to this method not to seriously consider it.
A majority-rule open primary with a clear line of succession. Three simple changes that increase turnout, cost nothing, and make elections fairer. How dangerous. How radical. But we know the City Council as a whole isn’t capable of supporting any of the changes I’ve put forward, and not because what I’m suggesting is impractical, but because these are ideas our leaders will find personally inconvenient. And rightfully so, they’re the ones with the most to lose. Council-members only won by an average of less than 1,200 votes. Councilman Welch won by less than 1,000. Councilman Warren Branch won by 15.
There are 500 million people on Twitter, and I don’t know how many people use it in Baltimore, but I’m guessing it’s a lot and I’ll let you decide how many. Old cities have old ways of electing their politicians, and I’m telling you that social media can sweep all of them away. And not in the future, it’s happening already. But being right about what’s wrong with the city isn’t enough anymore. Knowing what the problems are but not sharing them with 20 people in real-life won’t be enough to change anything. In 2012 Baltimore City is capable of being closer and better connected than at any point in our history times a billion. But that alone is worthless.
What’s important is what’s done with the freedom.
Get well, Tyler Waldman.
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