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Would return to ward system boost Hagerstown's turnout?

January 20, 2003

Concerned by the low turnout in recent city elections, Hagerstown Councilman Linn Hendershot this week proposed holding the vote on Saturday instead. That might help, but maybe it's time to look again at returning to the ward system.

Hendershot suggested a Saturday ballot so that schools used as polling places wouldn't be crowded with teachers and students and because most potential voters wouldn't have to go to work. Leaders of local Jewish and Seventh-day Adventist congregations said their members would not vote on a Saturday, but making it easier to obtain absentee ballots might overcome those objections.

But in reality, voting in a Hagerstown municipal election is a duty that comes around only once every four years. If citizens whose tax rates depend on who gets elected can't bother to vote now, would a Saturday vote really make a difference?

We suggest that if council members are serious about boosting turnout that they look at the possibility of re-instating the ward system, which was switched to an at-large process in 1981.

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The top reason cited for that was that the ward-system council was too narrowly focused, with its members not looking out for the entire city. And because under the one-person one-vote rule each member had to represent an equal number of citizens, boundary lines of the wards had to be shifted periodically.

The advantages of the ward system are that every section of the city has a representative who has to live with the same problems as other residents do. Would the previous council's self-denial about the downtown crime problem have persisted so long if any of its members had been forced to live with it?

A ward system would also make it easier for first-time candidates to run, since they wouldn't have to mount city-wide campaigns.

In March of 2001, several city candidates suggested a mixed system, with the majority of the council elected by wards and two additional members elected at-large.

Would that work? Maybe, maybe not. But as Hendershot said, a 17 percent turnout is way too low and city officials need to look at ways to change that.

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