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September 18, 2009

Why the low turnout?

Joe Charlebois

Why the low turnout in the City of Frederick elections? There are numerous reasons, so here are a few as I see it.


First the singular purpose of this election was the narrowing down of the large number of candidates in the mayoral and aldermanic races for the general election later this fall. There were not any “fire hot” races that inspired the casual voter to make their trek to the voting booth a priority.


Only hardcore politicos and active supporters of one or more of the candidates seem to turn out. It wasn’t for lack of information available, the interest just wasn’t there. A major policy change or crisis in the city did not play a role in differentiating the candidates either. So only those who did not follow the races closely may have felt that it would better not to vote than to make an uneducated decision.


When it comes to the big prize – the mayoral nomination for each party – the election was fairly predetermined. On the Republican side, turnout was extremely small. Why? The two front runners were reduced to one with the withdrawal of Ron Tobin from the primary process last week. He withdrew due to the return of a serious illness.


On the Democrat side, it comes as no surprise that Jason Judd won and won by large margins. Even though Jennifer Dougherty turned the page with a more positive attitude and lively campaign, the voters of Frederick have long memories and remember her negatives far more than the positives during her one term at the mayoral helm.


How bad was the turnout? The numbers don’t lie – only 16.87% of 29,943 registered voters voted. On the Democrat side only 2,680 voted. The Republican primary convinced only 1,433 to mark their ballots.


The candidates in the primary races didn’t fire up many more than their own supporters.


There were no hot button issues to differentiate the candidates. They were left to speaking generalities about improving the city. The victors on Tuesday were either incumbents or new faces with specific plans and deep knowledge of the workings of the city.


Probably the least significant point is the fact that there was a change in the polling places. This may or may not have had impact on the voters getting to the polls, but either way I’m sure there were citizens who showed up at the middle school and left confused.


Congratulations to the Neighborhood Advisory Committees (NAC), WFMD and The Frederick News-Post for providing the information that we did get.


Throughout the 12 precincts access to the forums and debates was plentiful. The News-Post ran biographies and question-and-answer columns to let the candidates to get out their information. The information remained available on their website even after publication.


WFMD-930 AM interviewed the candidates on-air as well as having the interviews available on its website for anyone to access or download at anytime. The NACs did a great job in getting the candidates together for live interaction with the electorate at several venues. But despite all the available information, the public – outside of hardcore politicos – did little to take advantage of the plethora of information.


Prior to this election, I was a proponent of keeping the election on an independent schedule. The last thing I wanted the city to do was take a back seat to federal and state elections. Based on what I saw Tuesday – along with the large savings of tying the elections together – I may have changed my opinion.


What are the other options besides marrying the election cycles to raise interest?


We could eliminate the at-large system of electing aldermanic candidates and institute a system where the aldermen are elected by geographic districts. This would bring the neighborhoods into the city as well. As it stands now, the neighborhoods of Dearbought, Worman’s Mill, North Crossing, Willow Brook, Clover Ridge, Tuscarora Creek, Whittier and Walnut Ridge have little in common with the historic district of downtown Frederick and its very specific issues.


With the proposed annexation of even more farmland by the City of Frederick – if it is approved – will become a city even less tied to its historic charm and more about big developments. As it stands now the NAC system is a fantastic way for those outside of downtown to communicate with city leaders and police. Without them we would truly be two separate cities under one name.


As the city grows in population and geographic size the need for election by precinct will become more important. The NACs show that neighborhoods do care about the city, but they have much different needs than downtown. Representation for the outlying communities would encourage the voters to the polls as they would have direct representation at City Hall.


Will turnout in November be light too? I’m not sure. If no issues arise that stir up the community prior to election night, we’ll be lucky to have 30% of the electorate cast their ballots. If that happens, count me in on bringing the city elections in conjunction with the state or federal ones and proposing the disposal of the at-large system we now currently have. The City of Frederick deserves better.


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