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Wrapping up the City Council race inside a national election

September 28, 2008

If I were a senior citizen, I might be a bit put off at the notion that a ballot encompassing races for national, state and city offices might be a bit much for me to wrap my feeble little brain around.

But even senior citizens, in their presumably withered and feeble mental state, might - if asked - come to the conclusion that $60,000 of their tax money would make it worth their while to worry their way through a longer ballot once every four years.

Election officials in Washington County say that's the amount of money Hagerstown would save if it moved its city elections to conform with the standing general election in November, where the state would pick up most of the tab.

Instead, the city insists on holding what are effectively special elections where council and mayoral hopefuls are the only names on the ballot. The city holds its "general election" in May.

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Lacking solid reasons for this anomaly, the city is in the process of perfecting the art of straw-grasping, hence the senior citizen angle.

There is also this gem: Lumping the city election in with county, state and national elections would make it hard for voters to "focus" on the city lineup itself.

My, but we've done a wonderful job of "focusing" under the present system, haven't we? This "focus" has produced an epic and unnecessary fight against a new hospital, council members accused of seeking favorable treatment from the police, a mayor who fought tooth-and-nail with the council until he finally quit and a business climate so sour that, even before the economic downturn, developers and entrepreneurs were washing their hands of downtown Hagerstown.

If this is what focus gets us, please, everyone, stop focusing. Just close your eyes and put your finger down on the ballot. Whatever name it rests upon is probably just as good as another.

The Hagerstown Charter Review Committee earlier this year recommended that the city's election date be consolidated and that the council members be elected on a nonpartisan basis - the entire field would be narrowed to 10 in the primary, and in the general the top five would win.

Both recommendations would be good for the city, but potentially bad for the incumbents, which is why these common-sense suggestions were rejected.

Special elections almost by definition limit voter turnout, which gives a tremendous edge to those who are already in office. It also gives a tremendous edge to special interests seeking to elect their favored candidate.

If 100 people with a common interest (their own, not the public's) uniformly back the candidates on whom they can count to do their bidding, their bloc packs much more weight when it's not watered down by a few thousand more voters that the general election might attract.

It's sometimes argued that low turnout has its advantages because those who do turn out are the ones most likely to care and pay attention to city-specific candidates and issues. They are more passionate about city government, in other words, and that makes them more qualified to select the best candidates.

But "the best" for whom? And why?

The passionate voter is generally passionate because he wants something out of City Hall for himself. And that's fair enough. There's nothing wrong with voting for your own interests.

So what of the more casual voter, the one with nothing in particular to gain or lose from the city? That voter might make a habit of voting in general elections, but might not feel vested enough to show up for a special City Hall election.

But if the general election also affords her the chance to vote for city council candidates, she might be inclined to do something totally nuts - such as vote for the council candidates she believes will work for the best interests of the city in general, not some specific group.

An incumbent naturally wants to limit the pool of voters for just that reason. If he can limit that pool to friends, family and the special interests whose back he scratches, he will be very hard to defeat.

So you get what we have a shining example of today - a council that is responsive to tiny circles within the city, not the city as a whole.

And this arrangement only works to further discourage the more casual voters from coming to the polls in a city-only election. They get the idea that government doesn't work, so what's the use?

Of course there is a silver lining to all this. It conclusively proves that - at least when self-preservation is an issue - this council is capable of making very wise decisions indeed.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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