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August 27, 2012

A Guide to a Tortured Ballot

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

Politicians seem to do everything in their power to make the practice of democracy as complicated as possible. Like everything else, on one hand we fuss about the lack of voter enthusiasm, and then we load up the ballot with complex and confusing questions.


This year may be a record setter: everything from gambling to changing our county form of government. Sadly, we don't ask regular people to compose these ballot questions; we pay constitutional legal scholars to write them.


So, here is a sampling of what you'll be asked to decide come November:


·        Shall we allow a major expansion of gaming in Maryland? The proposed expansion includes a new sixth casino in Prince George’s County, table games in the other five locations, a handout for established (or soon to be established) locations in Anne Arundel and Baltimore City, and the authorization for veteran's groups in certain parts of the state to employ pull-tab electronic bingo machines.


·        Shall we allow same-sex couples to get married? After years of back-and-forth, same-sex marriage advocates succeeded in passing a change to the definition of marriage in Maryland. Traditional marriage supporters immediately mobilized to drive a ballot question into the November electoral process.


·        Shall the congressional redistricting map passed by the General Assembly remain in force? Gov. Martin O'Malley and his majority control of both houses of our legislature were successful in driving a gerrymandered congressional district map revision through the General Assembly. The most obvious impact was the destruction of the GOP-controlled Sixth Congressional District. Rep. Roscoe Bartlett has seen his once-formidable grip on electability shattered by the new map. Democratic challenger and political newcomer John Delaney has a great shot at upsetting the 10-term Republican thanks to the creative cartography of state Democrats.


·        Shall Frederick County adopt a charter form of government over the current commissioner form? In one of the most complicated political choices voters are asked to settle, we will need to determine whether the draft charter document prepared by the Charter Committee addresses the issues of governance in a more satisfactory manner than the way our current Board of Commissioners do now.


In each of these questions, there are established interest groups, advocates and activists on both sides. Consider them the knowledgeable and informed portion of the electorate. They will spend money (lawyers, public relations types and lobbyists) to attempt to unduly influence the rest of us.


Next come the activists. For the marriage issue, gay rights and social justice activists will run sophisticated ground games to garner popular support. Religious groups and clergy will do the opposite to defend the traditional view of marriage.


The clergy may be really politically active this year, as most will also be fully engaged in fighting the expansion of gaming. Pulpits are traditionally free from overt politicking, but not this year!


The redistricting and charter questions pose a different problem. Yes, there are still activists on both issues. The difference is that these two ballot issues are very complicated, so complicated, in fact, that the risk is that most voters may find it easier to just vote NO than to study the various issues in order to cast a YES vote.


For blind adherents to partisan theology, the casting of referendum question votes is also complex. It isn't like there's a Democrat or Republican way to vote on the charter government question. Prominent party members have staked out positions on both sides of the debate, so you can't just do whatever your favorite idiot tells you to. In that case, you'd spin yourself into nausea trying to decide which idiot to follow.


Your best bet is to make a personal commitment to yourself and your future. Decide that in the upcoming election, you will make yourself dangerous; you will become that rare commodity in today's society, an informed voter. Go to the county elections office or visit their website and read the tortured language composed by our legal scholars. Study the words to be sure you understand.


Seek out as much information as you can in the local media. Read everything you can find on these subjects. Pay particular attention to the most divergent views on each question, even if you think you know where you stand.


The best exercise of your constitutional privilege is when you walk into the polling place with as much information as you can possibly obtain. Not only will you understand the issue, you will be better armed to engage in debate with the other side.


We've left it to the politicians to get us to this point. Now it's time to take control of the ballot. Be sure you have the tools you need on November 6, 2012.


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