Don’t go to the voting booth uninformed on Election Day

Published on: October 12, 2022 6:00 AM EDT|Updated on: October 12, 2022 8:41 AM EDT

Joshua Harris, VP of Maryland’s chapter of the NAACP, speaks at a press conference at War Memorial Plaza on 10/6/22 to encourage voters to vote no on Question K in the upcoming general election. The question would determine whether or not term limits are imposed on a number of elected positions in the city.

“Your Ballot for the 2022 General Election is Ready!” the State Board of Elections told me in an email message on Oct. 1.

After I looked through the ballot, however, I quickly realized that while it might be ready for me, I was not ready for it. Not yet.

Based on how many of us typically skip over offices whose candidates we do not recognize or ballot questions that seem like gobbledygook — state constitutional amendments, city charter changes, bond issues, spending authorizations — I know that I have lots of company. Some current office holders and power brokers who control the purse strings are probably perfectly fine with the status quo — and our collective ignorance, confusion and passivity.

I refuse to give them that satisfaction. And other voters shouldn’t either.

The advantage of an online ballot is that you have extra time to print it out and study it. Right away you’ll notice that so many names are now familiar from the primary elections. Indeed, for many races, the winners in the July primaries will be the ultimate winners in November. No one is running against the candidates, or they have only token opposition.

That’s why we know who the Circuit Court and Orphans’ Court judges will be. That’s how we know that the Baltimore state’s attorney will be Ivan Bates; the sheriff Sam Cogen; the clerk of the Circuit Court Xavier Conaway; and the register of wills Belinda Conaway, his mother. The lawn of the Conaways’ house at Liberty Heights and Hilton — which is also a residence of Del. Frank Conaway Jr., Belinda’s brother and Xavier’s uncle — sports a large yellow banner thanking Baltimoreans.

Illustration of E.R. Shipp, Creative in Residence for The Baltimore Banner.

Most would put Wes Moore in this category of candidates assured victory next month. Polls show the Democrat comfortably ahead with substantial support from registered Republicans. But I take nothing for granted when a candidate for major office is seeking to break through a color barrier. People will tell pollsters one thing and then vote differently. So until I see it happen, I won’t trust that Democrats will vote for a Black man running as a Democrat when they can vote for a white man, even one who is a Republican described as a “QAnon whack job” by the current governor, who is himself a Republican. Every vote in the general election matters, even if a Washington Post-University of Maryland poll conducted Sept. 22-27 indicated that Moore led Cox by 32 percentage points.

Statewide, Maryland Question 4 is the featured attraction. If it passes, possession and use of up to 1.5 ounces of marijuana will become legal in the state. I’m personally agnostic on the subject, but I note that neighboring Virginia and Washington, D.C., are among the jurisdictions where recreational use of marijuana (or cannabis) is lawful. I also note that far more Black people have been prosecuted under existing law than white people, who studies show use marijuana just as frequently. So this constitutional amendment would permit state law to catch up to the real world and perhaps offer a modicum of justice to those for whom past convictions remain an albatross.

I’m much more interested in Maryland Question 2, which would require state senators and delegates to have their primary residence in the districts they represent. Some legislators are, shall we say, suspected of maintaining an address where they occasionally sleep in the city, but their primary abode is elsewhere. This would fix that, and them.

In Baltimore City, the four candidates for school board must be whittled down to two. So, yes, there are still some undecided races that deserve attention. This marks the first time that Baltimoreans elect school board members. The winners will join a board in which the other members have been appointed by the mayor.

Beyond that race, there are all those darned questions, some amendments to the city’s charter and other requests to authorize the city to borrow and spend money for various projects.

We keep hearing that Baltimoreans hardly ever say no to ballot questions. Those promoting some of the more consequential ones are counting on people following what they are being not-so-subliminally told is the norm — saying yes to everything.

Let’s not be played like that. You might try what I’m doing: studying the ballot questions, their background and explanations of what a yes or no vote would mean. The League of Women Voters makes that easy with detailed information in its Vote411 Voter Guide. Attend forums, in person and virtually. Follow The Banner and other news sources that are reporting on some of the issues.

It is easy to see why some people vote yes down the line: The Baltimore City questions A-D, for instance, ask voters to approve of the city government borrowing and spending money for such things as affordable housing, new school facilities, economic development and public infrastructure. While some of us may have objections on the basis of fiscal responsibility, others of us probably see these rather benign-sounding requests as opportunities to make Baltimore better. But after those come the questions with more complicated consequences.

In an era in which there are questions regarding whether we should rethink the role of police departments, Baltimore voters are being asked whether a Baltimore City Police Department should be created. Huh? Well, as some may not know, the police department in the city has been a state agency since the 19th century. Huh? Yep. The state legislature and the City Council have separately taken actions to put the question before we the people. A yes vote to Baltimore City Question H would be a corrective, granting the mayor and the City Council more control over the police force.

At a time when we see such partisan gridlock in Washington, the urge to throw the bums out is understandable. But Baltimore City Question K is problematic. I don’t trust the moneybag behind the campaign for term limits for these city offices. He’s David Smith, who is reported to have told Donald Trump in 2016, “We are here to deliver your message.” His “we” is the Sinclair Broadcast Group, of which he is chairman. The extent to which Sinclair kept its pledge was evident in 2018, when a video produced by the media site Deadspin went global. It showed anchors all across the country delivering a Trumpian warning against mainstream media and the tag line, “This is extremely dangerous to our democracy.”

Take a look here for an eerie preview of a dystopian future in which corporate puppet masters like Sinclair would have us mouthing only words that they approve. That hint of authoritarianism gives me the heebie-jeebies because THAT is extremely dangerous to our democracy.

So I’m a no on Baltimore City Question K. I might think differently about a different version with less troublesome backing that provides for staggered terms for council members.

I’m sharing in real time my process for deciding how I’m voting. I hope more people are engaged in a similar exercise. But as I do this, I wish that voter literacy was more of a priority in our public education system and more accessible to older adults.

“There are significant gaps,” observes John Bullock, a political science lecturer at Towson University who represents District 9 on the Baltimore City Council. As he’s knocked on doors and talked to voters over the years, he’s found that people are in the dark not only about who is running but also about which districts they reside in for local, state and federal elections. “There is a significant need for voter education and participation,” he said, adding: “Our civil rights organizations, our fraternal organizations, our churches really could do a better job of filling in that gap.”

In the meantime, keep studying those ballots.

E.R. Shipp is a veteran journalist and Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist. She is also currently an associate professor at Morgan State University.