by PETER KOVAR
Ward 1 City Councilmember
Nothing’s perfect. Takoma Park’s local elections have a wonderful small-town feel. All candidates and voters show up at the Community Center to campaign, gossip and celebrate democracy. But only 10 – 20 percent of registered City voters turn out for these elections. We tout our tradition of political engagement, but we fall short on local Election Days.
That’s why I support “synchronizing” our elections with the elections in even years, when Federal, State and County candidates are on the ballot. In those years, Takoma Park’s turnout is 40 – 75 percent or more. But nothing’s perfect — if we switch to even years, residents would vote at the four or five usual precincts, and we’ll lose some of that small town feel.
That’s the biggest difference with Synchronization. For me, losing the single-site voting place is a worthwhile trade-off to get a much larger turnout. Others may prefer the lower turnout, but that means a small minority of voters in each Ward will continue deciding the outcome of Council races. I don’t think that’s aligned with Takoma Park political values.
In recent local elections, the turnout figures were 18 percent in 2011, 10 percent in 2013, and 21 percent in 2015. Those statistics are bad enough, especially when compared to the turnouts of 45 percent in 2014 and over 75 percent in recent Presidential elections. But my Council colleague Tim Male has compiled data showing there isn’t a randomly distributed turnout drop-off in local years. Rather, there’s a deeper decline in Wards 4, 5 and 6, where residents tend to have lower incomes and are more likely to be members of minority communities than in Wards 1, 2 and 3. His statistics also show there’s often a greater drop-off in some of the larger apartment buildings. In one Ward 4 building, residents voted at 80 – 90 percent of the level of the folks in parts of Ward One in national elections, but that number fell to around 20 percent in local election years.
The City Council just approved a resolution committing us to consider all our official actions through a Racial Equity lens. Deciding whether to synchronize is a key test of this principle because with greater turnout there’s a likelihood of substantially more minority participation in elections. This may lead over time to greater diversity in the makeup of the Council.
I’m pleased 76 percent of voters endorsed Synchronization in a 2015 referendum, provided we could preserve instant runoff, non-citizen voting, 16 and 17 year old voting, and same day registration. Based on excellent work by City staff and our Board of Elections, it’s evident we can preserve those things. It’s also now clear that — to satisfy State and County concerns – we’ll need two separate voting rooms at each City precinct, one for local elections, one for the rest.
This means voters would check in twice and possibly wait in two lines, though the local line would be shorter, with only votes for Mayor and Councilmember. This may sound complicated, but cities like Ocean City, MD that have tried it have found little drop-off in turnout between the first and second lines. Because we would have several precincts, we’d need to hire more Election Day workers and have more voting machines. But the extra costs wouldn’t be prohibitive (and there would be savings with the odd year elections cancelled). We also couldn’t be part of County early voting, so we’ll have to make sure our voters understand their early voting options.
A key question is whether low turnout is caused by lack of electoral competition or if higher turnout can promote competition. Maybe our politically homogeneous nature, and the Mayor and Councilmember jobs being part time with “token” salaries help explain our uncontested election trend. In any case, there’s almost no competition now, including from minority candidates. In 2015, five of the seven City races were uncontested, and the two that were saw fairly large wins. One minority candidate mounted a late, write-in campaign. So the idea that Synchronization would discourage people from running doesn’t hold up – it’s not happening now.
I think there’s a better chance for competitive races with Synchronization. If you see a City Council incumbent winning unopposed with 200 – 300 votes, as a potential challenger you’re deterred from running because you’d have to find another 300 votes among folks who don’t vote in local elections. But if it’s a Presidential year, and 800 – 1,000 people go to the polls, there’s more than enough votes to form your own coalition. My Council colleague Fred Schultz, in a Voice column he authored last month opposing Synchronization, gave a slight bow in this direction when he wrote “[i]ncumbents have an inherent advantage because contests are not decided on issues but on who you know.” That might be true when only 200 people cast ballots, but not if there are 1,000 voters.
In 2015, 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). In the three highest turnout Wards, which had turnouts of 20 – 30 percent, that’s still 10 – 20 percent lower than in Gubernatorial years, and way below the 75 percent seen in Presidential years. Even if we had contested elections in all Wards, and that led to turnouts near 30 percent everywhere (matching the 2015 Ward One level), it would be much lower across the board than the expected turnout in a Gubernatorial year and less than half the anticipated numbers for a Presidential year. And, if half the voters in a Presidential year skip the second line (which goes against Ocean City’s experience) we’d still nearly double our turnout.
Will it be harder for Council candidates to get their message out when there’s also a high profile Federal race? Maybe, but I doubt Takoma Park residents will ignore local candidates. With the primary election in June, and Takoma Park’s registration so heavily Democratic, there would be less activity in the fall for many of our general election races, as happened in Jamie Raskin’s recent election. With our municipal races only starting up in earnest in early September, the major competition for voters’ eyes and ears would be at-large County Council and Governors’ races. That doesn’t seem like enough to swallow up interest in local races, especially with our local elections so focused on grass roots organizing and door-knocking.
It’s discouraging when so few people come to Council meetings or participate in local affairs. There are plenty of steps we can take to help promote more resident involvement in civic affairs, like continuing to expand our translation of City documents; holding more Council meetings at locations other than the Community Center; and exploring ways of reducing the digital divide. We should work on all of those, but let’s not leave one of the biggest ideas on the table. Synchronization may not be perfect – again, nothing is. But it will substantially increase civic engagement, and help bring our elections more in line with our community values.