Monday, February 09, 2009

Battle Over the Special Election Dates (Updated)

At this moment, the County Council, the Montgomery County Board of Elections (BOE) and the Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) are locked in a struggle over the dates of the District 4 special election. At stake is how easy it will be for District 4 residents to cast their votes.

County Council staff first proposed setting the special election dates as April 14 for the primary and May 12 for the general. The reason is that those dates most closely resemble the dates from last year (April 15 and May 13). But in asking for those dates, the staff ran afoul of requests by both BOE and MCPS to set the primary for April 7.

The relevant fact for the primary is that 33 of District 4’s 45 precinct voting locations are public schools. MCPS Superintendent Jerry Weast notes:

April 7 falls during the school system’s spring break and would be the least disruptive time for the schools. April 14 is the day students return from spring break. April 10 or 13 (Good Friday and Easter Monday) are holidays, and all school buildings are closed and all system staff is on leave. Therefore, no staff will be in the buildings on these two days for the delivery of polling equipment. It may be difficult to get staff to work in some of the polling sites on these two dates. The hourly cost will be one- and one-half times the normal rate of pay for the building services staff because of the holidays, or between $40 and $50 per hour. I am sure that you would agree that this is not the time to incur additional expenses.
BOE concurs with MCPS:

The MCBOE initially proposed April 7, 2009 for the Primary Election and May 12, 2009 for the General Election. It is our understanding that some felt April 7, 2009 was not a good date because public school students were on spring break. The MCBOE respectfully disagrees that it is problematic to hold the election during spring break, particularly given the fact that voters can vote absentee if they are indeed going to be out of town.

Moreover, there are a number of problems with setting the Special Primary Election for April 14, 2009. Last year, when the Council District 4 Special Election was held while school was in session, MCBOE received complaints from parents that strangers were walking around the school. Additionally, some voters complained about excessive noise while voting in multi-purpose rooms. MCBOE respectfully submits that it is less disruptive to the schools and is in fact a better voting experience for voters, if the Council scheduled the Special Primary Election to occur on a date when students were off. Additionally, the Board of Elections will consolidate polling places for this election to contain the cost of the elections. If that occurs, we are concerned about the amount of parking available to voters on election days. If the election was held on April 7, as opposed to April 14, there would be no issue regarding parking, an issue that is important to the voters.

There are two (2) additional problems with conducting the Special Primary Election on April 14, 2009. First, MCBOE will need to be able to access each school used as a polling place on April 13, 2009 to deliver and secure equipment and to enable election judges to meet at the facility in the evening of April 13, 2009, for election preparation. In reviewing the Board of Education’s calendar, building facilities are scheduled to be closed on April 13, 2009. We have been advised that April 13, 2009 is a State wide holiday requiring employees to be paid two and half times (2 ½) compensation if they are required to work on April 13, 2009.

Lastly, April 14, 2009, falls on a Jewish holiday, starting at sunset, and will impact the orthodox Jewish voters residing in Kemp Mill and Leisure World communities. This not only limits the hours which voters can vote but further curtails who can and will serve as an election judge.
The council staff memo reveals that Council President Phil Andrews agreed with the objections to April 14 for the primary but did not heed the recommendation by MCPS and BOE for April 7. Instead, he prefers April 21 for the primary and May 19 for the general. BOE specifically requested five weeks between the primary and general but Andrews did not agree.

The full County Council must now decide the special election schedule. Whatever they do, they must focus on encouraging turnout. In last year’s special primary, overall turnout was 11%, Democratic turnout was 16% and Republican turnout was close to 10%. (Independents do not vote in Maryland primaries.) Whoever is elected this time will presumably be running as an incumbent in 2010. It is very important that that individual receive as much of a mandate from as large a part of the electorate as possible before assuming the mantle of incumbency.

Furthermore, BOE’s announcement of its intention to consolidate voting precincts bodes ill for turnout. If voters are confused because their regular polling places turn them away, they will be less likely to cast ballots. Any attempts by BOE to adequately educate the public about precinct changes will cost money – perhaps as much money as will be saved by closing precinct locations.

We call on all District 4 special election candidates to OPPOSE any measures that damage turnout.

Update: County Council Member Valerie Ervin is calling for April 7 and May 12.

Below is the letter from MCPS. Click on the images for larger views.

Below is the letter from BOE. Click on the images for larger views.