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The Best of the Bay ~ Every Week Since 1993
Volume 16, Issue 8 - February 21 - February 27, 2008

Where We Live
by Steve Carr

Did You Vote?

How Maryland can double its best turnout

We constantly extol the unique virtues of American democracy. We are trying to export our system to places like Africa and the Arab world. Yet, on average, only half the people in this country, state and county vote in any given election. What’s so democratic about that? When half the people choose not to participate in our electoral process, isn’t that cause for concern?

Maryland’s Feb. 12 Primary proves the system is in fact broke and needs fixing.

Here’s some of the problems — and how to fix them.

Vote on Saturdays

Right after I had voted, I went to my bank. All three tellers said No way when I asked whether they’d voted.

The problem was they had to work until five and then pick up their children, go home and start dinner, then get ready for work the next day.

If the goal is to eliminate working people from voting, then we are definitely on the right track. Many of the industrial nations of the world vote on Saturday, when most people don’t work. Their voter turnouts would put this country to shame.

Enfranchise Independents

Not letting independents vote in primaries is equally ridiculous. They pay taxes, too. How did the Democrats and Republicans ever get away with excluding them? It seems patently unconstitutional to exclude a significant, uncommitted voting block of the electorate. Frankly, it smells like political extortion.

Make Voting Easy

Another problem with our voting system is that it discriminates against poor people. If you don’t have a car, then how are you supposed to get to the polls? I have been working every election for years with an organization called Friends of Black Annapolitans. We provide free van rides to the polls for the folks who live in the public housing communities around Annapolis. We take hundreds of needy people, many of them veterans and seniors, to their polling places.

Weather is yet another block. This year, the Maryland primary was moved up from March so it could be part of the Potomac, or Chesapeake, Primary, which included Virginia and the District of Columbia. February is notoriously prone to bad weather. No surprise: An icy rain began to fall at about three in the afternoon. None of Annapolis’s bridges had been salted, and they turned to ice. The state shut the bridges down for the next five hours. Yes, polls were open an extra 90 minutes, but by that time, most people had been sitting in their cars for hours, the weather forecast was for more icy rain and everybody just wanted to get home after a nightmare day.

The biggest problem with our electoral system is the short time we have to vote. One day is simply not enough.

There is no compelling reason to limit voting to a single day.

We need only look at the state of Oregon for a voting model that makes sense. In 1998, the voters of Oregon passed a ballot measure directing all elections to be conducted by mail. Each registered voter receives a ballot by mail at least two weeks before the election. The voter fills out the ballot and then mails it back to the county. Traditional polling places are eliminated.

The goals of Vote by Mail were simple and easily measured: Oregon hoped to increase voter participation; eliminate the roadblocks that keep people from the polls; allow more time for people to study issues and candidates before marking their ballot; and save taxpayer dollars.

Did it work?

Record numbers of Oregonians registered to vote, and almost 87 percent of them cast ballots in the last election.

Vote by Mail also provides an automatic paper trail, addressing Maryland’s endless and expensive debate over the old punch-style ballots or optical scans.

Without polling places, poll workers aren’t needed. As a result, the Vote-by-Mail election is 30 percent cheaper.

Thirty-seven percent of eligible Maryland voters cast ballots last Tuesday; up from 27 percent in 2004.

Do you think that number would have been higher if we had been given two weeks to vote by mail?

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