Save money on democracy: It could create a better city overall

Written by on November 2, 2011 in Baltimore Voices - No comments

The election judges at Engine Company 5 should bring a nice novel with them Tuesday—turnout for the city’s general election is predicted to be south of 20 percent, nothing like the 68 percent who voted in the 2008 general election. Photo by Jacqueline Watts

It costs about $4 million to put on an election in the city. That pays the judges’ salaries, rent for the polling rooms, the ballot counters, the guys who set up the machines, the guys who drive the machines to the voting rooms, overtime for the cops who patrol the polls and carry the hard drives with the results to the Board of Elections, etc., etc.

Democracy is not cheap.

So, in these challenging times for city budgets, why do we hold a state election for $4 million, and then turn around the next year and hold a city election for another $4 million? Why not combine them?
Glad you asked.

All of us, or at least just about all of us, aspire to something bigger. Triple-A ballplayers dream of the majors. Assistant principals know in their hearts that they’d be better than the guy currently in the big office. Middle managers dream of being CEOs and mismanaging huge corporations.

City Council members dream of the state legislature. State legislators dream of the second floor of City Hall, where the big ceremonial office is.

And if a politician can try for another office without risking his current office, well, then, he likes that a lot.

For instance, State Senator Catherine Pugh took a whack at the mayor’s office in the Democratic primary this year. She lost, but she’s keeping her job in the State Senate.

For that sort of risk-free political aspiration, taxpayers pay $8 million in two years—two primaries, two general elections, one set for state offices, one set for city offices. When, if we just made politicians take a leap of faith–take a little risk–we’d spend only $4 million.

$4 million is a lot of money. If you’re the Enoch Pratt Free Library, it’s more than 10 percent of the operating budget. Over at Recreation and Parks, it’s more than 15 percent of the city’s allocation. I mention these two departments because they are the usual targets when city officials sharpen their budget axes.

Combining the two elections would complicate things somewhat for candidates, because it would make fundraising harder–corporations and individuals are limited to a certain amount per election cycle, and combining the election cycles would force city candidates and state candidates to fight for the same pool of money.

I have given this fundraising problem a great deal of thought–about 30 seconds’ worth–and decided that seriously, it’s not the taxpayers’ problem. What taxpayers want is honest, efficient and responsive government, and most of us don’t give a hoot about upward or sideways movement of political office holders.

Let losing candidates mouse through with the rest of us.

It doesn’t really matter whether the city elections are aligned with the state elections or with the feds, as long as they are realigned. $4 million is a lot of money to save.

Let’s keep more rec centers and libraries open, and in the summer maybe mow the parks a little more often.

by Jacqueline Watts

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