OP-ED: The problem with changing the election year

Ballot boxes in the 2014 Takoma Park special election.


Fred Schultz is the Ward 6 Takoma Park City Council representative. 

In the November, 2015 city election 76% of those voting said yes to the idea of making city elections take place at the same time and place as the county, state and federal elections. The whole premise for this vote was that doing this would get more residents to vote in our biennial election.

In other words, the more votes, the better.

This vote was taken before we learned so much about the complications associated with this proposed merger. After hearing the city Board of Elections findings, I’ve reached the conclusion that we have far more to lose than to gain. Especially if we want to encourage minority candidates and minority voter participation.

Takoma Park councilmember Fred Schultz.

In a nutshell, it comes down to this choice. Ask yourself: what is more important? Having more voters vote or having more candidates to vote for, including more minority candidates?

Have you noticed that the city council does not look much like Takoma Park? Why is that?

Since the ballot question, the city council has focused on the legalities and the logistics of voting in even-numbered years. Most of my council colleagues have studiously avoided the “elephant in the room.” What is the elephant?

The real reason that voter turn-out is low in our elections is that usually you, the voter, have little or no choice of who to vote for. Since 2007 there have been five regular elections. With seven seats on the council, that means 35 races. Only three (3) out of the 35 races have been seriously contested. By “seriously contested” I mean the winner gets less than 70% of the vote. In 24 of these races (69%) there was no opposition at all! In the past 10 years only one African American has been elected (and that was in a special election).

There are obvious reasons not many capable people choose to compete. You have to run every two years; the pay is lousy, the time commitment is great. Campaigning is almost totally door-to-door (as it should be). Incumbents have an inherent advantage because contests are not decided on issues but on who you know. Racial minorities thus have a hard time getting a toe-hold.

Our objective needs to be getting more capable people to run. Having elections on the same day as the county will cause fewer people to run. Why? City candidates will be competing against the contests for governor, the county executive, county councilmember and school board members, not to mention federal races. City candidates will be competing for attention against incredible floods of literature, door knocking, robo calls, and scores of yard signs. The city campaign will be twice as long as it is now, according to the election board. For city candidates the costs of campaigning will be much higher.

Let’s not kid ourselves about these things. I have run four times and I know how hard it is.

Defeating an incumbent is almost impossible as it is. Did you know that in the past five elections an incumbent has never lost? That means that our city council will continue to NOT look like Takoma Park. Merging the election date will make it harder, not easier to compete. We support “racial equity,” but this runs the risk of creating more racial inequity.

But, you may argue, a lot more people will be casting votes. But will they? And what difference will it make? After standing in lines to vote for the big elections, who will be eager to stand in a separate line to vote when your vote doesn’t matter? Why is it more important to have lots of votes, but no competition?

Our focus is all wrong. But here’s what will work. Here is a better, cheaper, easier and faster solution:

1. Keep the election in odd-number years.
2. Move the election to Sunday.
3. Keep the election at the community center and not scatter it to four or five outlying locations.
4. Provide music, food & drinks, and kids’ entertainment for the duration of voting
5. Add in fun things like 50-50 raffles and pony rides. Make it a “Play Day.”
6. Provide a stage and a mic where all candidates and any resident who wants to may speak.
7. Leading up to the election, make a persistent effort to get non-citizens and young people to come to the community center and vote.
8. We preserve and enhance the civic celebration that makes our election unique.
9. 16 & 17-year old and non-citizen voting will be strengthened.

We will absolutely have a much higher participation and a lot more minority voters. Plus,

1. There will be no need for dual check-ins and to stand in 2 lines to vote.
2. No need for 2 absentee ballots
3. No need to vote early at two different places
4. No need to amend the city charter. (Once the charter is amended it will never be un-amended.)
5, No need to have councilmembers serve a 1-year term (a bad idea)
6. No need to waste money on hiring and training 4 times as many election judges
7. We’ll save about $47,000 in unneeded training, salary, equipment and supply expenses
8. No need to extend the election campaign by one month (twice as long as now)
9. No need to compete for attention against county, state and federal election campaigning in 2018
10. No need for coordination with the county
11. The cost of electioneering for candidates will be far less.

Let Takoma Park remain special. We do not need to copy other cities that are so very different from ours. Let’s not abandoned the civic pride we have in our family-like elections at the community center.

Then, let’s give real consideration to raising councilmember salaries.