Americans talk a good game on Memorial Day and Veterans Day about the sacrifices so many have made for American democracy. So it’s somewhat ironic and definitely disappointing that so many Americans don’t bother to participate in the simple act of voting in that democracy.
Frederick city elections, always following a presidential election year, are a case in point. Even when the Board of Aldermen decided to mail out ballots to every registered voter for the primary election held in September, participation was 17 percent, (and was only 8 percent among Republicans!) — just a notch up from usual. Turn-out in the general usually registers in the range of 21 to 23 percent; 2021 is unlikely to vary greatly.
It’s hard to blame non-voters because the election is just plain zany, and that’s saying something, because the city has held some zany elections in the past. In one, a long-time Democrat switched parties in order to run (successfully) against an incumbent mayor. In another, a former mayor challenged the city’s residency requirement for mayor in federal court so he could challenge his own party’s incumbent, perversely leaving the city for a period of time with no residency requirement. Another mayor was elected who many suspected never actually lived in the city during his tenure.
This year, controversy surrounds the Republican nominee, Steven Hammrick. Or perhaps you know him better as Steven Hamrick (with one “m”). Hammrick’s most notable appearance has come not in any campaign debate or forum, where he’s been a no-show, but in court in early October to answer assault charges. His second campaign report shows he has not rwaised or spent a dime in pursuit of the high office.
Jennifer Dougherty presumably was ready to accept the will of the voters if she won the Democratic primary for mayor, but since voters thought otherwise, she has now ungraciously offered herself as a write-in candidate. She’s on record believing that Mayor Michael O’Connor should have alerted voters to Hammrick’s criminal background.
However, shouldn’t the parties be policing themselves? But I’ve yet to hear a whisper from Republican Party officials about Hammrick, or why Republicans couldn’t field the minimum five candidates for aldermen (they’ve nominated just two). That’s particularly zany when you realize that Republican mayors have reigned for 24 of the last 32 years despite Democrats enjoying a significant plurality of registered voters.
In my 40 years as a city voter, I can’t remember another election where the result seems like such a foregone conclusion: I believe Michael O’Connor will be easily re-elected. (Disclosure: I am actively supporting O’Connor’s candidacy.)
So how do we convince more voters to participate in the city’s zany elections? The News-Post has stated its support for an old idea: switching the city election to the state/county election year. Former Delegate and County Commissioner Galen Clagett offered an alternative in a letter to the editor, suggesting it would make more sense to move the municipal election to the presidential year, where the ballot is very short — sometimes just president, senator, and representative in Congress.
Of course, turnout for state/county elections is far lower than presidential years. In 2018, Frederick County turnout in the general election was 63 percent compared to about 75 percent in the 2020 presidential election, but an abysmal city-like 22 percent in the primary. And by the time you reach judge of the orphans court on the lengthy ballot, 15 to 20 percent fewer voters are registering a preference.
So it remains to be seen whether adding a Frederick city election to the bottom of the state/county ballot would change participation at the municipal level in any appreciable way. Both suggestions merit more debate and consideration, something perhaps a “blue-ribbon panel” might consider once the dust settles from this year’s election.
Another idea for a blue-ribbon panel: Whether to elect aldermen by district instead of across the city at-large. Now there’s an idea that might spur voter interest by encouraging “neighborhood” candidates who might be daunted by running city-wide, and perhaps creating a different type of accountability when they serve on the board of aldermen.
Michael O’Connor should have quite the mandate to address some of these long-neglected ideas in a responsible fashion.
Don DeArmon has already voted in the general election and hopes the city will switch to a mail-only voting system for good. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org