Dumbing Down Local Elections

Things that are important often aren’t easy, nor should they be.

Earlier this month, I received a letter from the City of Annapolis Board of Elections. It stated that because there were no competitive races in my district, I would not be sent a mail-in ballot for the upcoming primary election. Furthermore, no polling place would be set up where I could cast a vote. While I understand the pragmatism of this decision (I have been a frequent critic of holding off-year and special elections because of the immense cost to local municipalities relative to the low turnout), it was a shock to realize that for the first time in my life I would not be participating in an election. Granted there wasn’t a City Council candidate running in my ward, but I could not even submit a write-in vote in protest.

I first registered to vote when I was 18, and have participated in every federal, state, and local election, primary and general, over the past 30 years for which I’ve been eligible. I maintained and updated my voter registration through various moves that took me to three different states and four different counties and municipalities. And this was before online voting registration made the process a lot easier. I made sure I knew in advance where my polling places were located, and brought my voter registration card and driver’s license with me – not because it was required, but because that’s generally what responsible people do. I researched candidates and made sure I knew something about each person on the ballot before casting my vote. In short, I’ve followed the rules like a good citizen. But we seem to be entering an era where the rules are being re-written to favor those who haven’t done these things.

Due to the pandemic, voting by mail exploded during the Presidential election of 2020. My home state of Maryland has always had a robust absentee ballot option, and voters were heavily encouraged to use it. Maryland doesn’t require a reason for voting absentee, but it does require the voter to proactively request a ballot. This is important because it reduces the chances of an absentee ballot being sent to a bad address (the voter has a chance to verify and/or update their registration address when they make the request) and helps ensure ballots are only sent to people who intend to use them, and who are expecting them. In other words, it reduces the chances that a bunch of ballots will be floating around unused, and limits the opportunity for someone other than the intended registered voter to obtain and cast those ballots.

This year the City of Annapolis controversially decided to mail out ballots to all registered voters, without a proactive request. Never mind that in the last city election, only 37% of registered voters actually voted – and that was a high turnout. Annapolis city council candidates tend to only receive a few hundred votes each, and races are often decided by just a few dozen votes. It’s likely that nearly two-thirds of those printed ballots won’t be returned, at least not by the voter whose name is listed on them. Someone who isn’t planning on voting probably isn’t checking to see whether their registration address is still current, and isn’t going to notice when their ballot doesn’t arrive in the mail. In addition to the letter I received, I also received letters sent to the three previous residents of my current address. I guess I can take some solace in the fact that they weren’t sent a ballot either.

In 2009, I served as an election judge for our city elections. In one of the more bizarre races, a candidate named Zina Pierre won the Democratic mayoral primary over the outgoing mayor’s handpicked successor. It was later discovered that she was not actually a resident of Annapolis, and her nomination was revoked and given to her opponent instead. Ms. Pierre brought a great deal of excitement to the race, and her following included huge numbers of people who had never voted before. I spent most of my time as an election judge talking to would-be voters who didn’t understand they had to register to vote, or could only cast their vote at a specific polling place. For some reason, they showed up at my polling place instead of the one closest to their registered address – most likely they no longer lived at their registered address. Then there was the guy who complained to me that he drove all the way from his home in Rockville because he wanted to vote for her.

We live in an era where civics education in schools has been eroded down to nothing. More and more people don’t understand the basics about voting. It’s especially evident in Presidential election years, when confusion abounds over the Electoral College. But even in smaller elections, many people don’t care enough to learn about how to vote, let alone who to vote for.

Meanwhile, voting rights advocates argue that the “system” creates too many barriers to voting. They eschew voter ID laws, but demand same-day voter registration. They want Election Day “holidays” when everyone can stay home from work and vote instead. Of course many of those with low-paid and service sector jobs still have to work even on Federal holidays, so it really wouldn’t help. Like many states, Maryland implemented an extended early voting period several election cycles ago, which provides far more flexibility in voting than a single holiday would. This has had little effect on overall turnout though. Those who normally vote in person still do so, just on a time-shifted basis, while those who tend not to vote still don’t.

Others have pushed for automatic voter registration or making voting mandatory. The reality is, people who have absolutely no interest in voting – or the minimal effort it requires – shouldn’t be forced to vote. We shouldn’t be dumbing down the elections process in the hopes of attracting the lowest common denominator. We should be revering the process and the personal effort and responsibility it requires. We should be convincing people that it’s worth finding the time to visit the polls or request an absentee ballot, and that the homework of registering to vote and learn about candidates and issues benefits them and makes them better citizens. Of course this is a hard sell in the age of social media and instant gratification.

Things that are important often aren’t easy, nor should they be. Voting requires effort and thought. Taking that away won’t improve our democracy; it only leads to a less-engaged electorate. If we value elections in our country, let’s not cheapen them. As I sit watching the election results come in Tuesday night – results that won’t include my vote – I can only hope that those who submitted ballots placed value in doing so.