Savings Not Enough To Sway Council On Election

OCEAN CITY — When it comes to voting, Ocean City’s elected officials prefer tradition to technology.

The Mayor and City Council passed on an opportunity to save some money and perhaps increase voter turnout by switching the local voting day to coincide with the national Election Day in a 6-1 vote (Councilman Joe Hall in opposition) on Tuesday.

As part of City Manager Dennis Dare’s cost saving initiative, City Clerk Carol Jacobs brought an idea to eliminate the estimated $17,860 that it will take to hold the 2010 Ocean City municipal election, which is traditionally held in late October, and merge it with the national election, which is held the first full week of November.

Jacobs proposed that the move would simply involve the county placing the Ocean City candidates’ names on the county ballot, creating essentially a one-stop voting booth for national, municipal and county elections all on the same day.

Since Ocean City’s registered voters make up what is known as election District 7, the only polling place for elections, regardless of whether or not the election is local or national, is the Roland E. Powell Convention Center.

“There are 155 municipalities in the state of Maryland and all but one have their own election days which are spread out throughout the year,” said Jacobs. “However, the City of Cumberland moved theirs to coincide with the national election day and not only did they receive no opposition, but they saved money and actually got a larger voter turnout.”

Jacobs argued that the move would also be prudent because the voting machines that Ocean City uses for its municipal elections are essentially “antiques.”

“It might be time to make this toward the alternative voting machines (touch screen machines) that are being used across the country,” said Jacobs. “Four of our machines were manufactured in 1956, and two date back to the 1970’s. We had been using a New Jersey-based company which provides spare parts for the machines to lengthen their lifespan, but apparently that company has gone out of business because I can’t find them.”

Yet, despite the minimal cost savings to the town, the potential increase in voter turnout and perhaps an easier day at the polls for the voters, the council seemed hesitant to change the way that Ocean City spends its day at the polls.

“My fear is that if we change it to the national Election Day, it will take away from the purity of our non-partisan election here in Ocean City,” said Councilwoman Mary Knight, who was re-elected in 2008.

Councilman Jim Hall, who is the longest tenured council member, also felt keeping things the way they have always been is more important than keeping a few extra proverbial dollars in the city’s pocket.

“I’ve been in a few of these elections, and it’s a special day for Ocean City, and it’s a special day for Jim Hall,” said Hall. “It’s a day where we can see everyone and be in front of the people we are elected to represent and I really cherish that. Our names are the only ones on those ballots, and it’s a clean and easy process. You know who you are voting for in our election.”

Timeliness was also a matter in question, as traditionally, local voters know by the end of Election Day who will be sworn in as Ocean City’s future leaders. Several members of the council argued that moving the local vote to the hands of the county would delay the process and change the complexion of the entire evening.

“Originally, I was in favor of changing this date and saving the money,” said Councilwoman Margaret Pillas, “but I received a lot of response from local people telling me to keep it simple stupid and keep the election local. Putting us on the national ballot would just be too confusing for people, and it would be too many names and too many issues. We need to keep our small town election small.”

Councilman Joe Hall, on the other hand, thought that the city should perhaps follow suit with the city of Cumberland and make what he called the “very easy” decision to catch up with the times as far as voting machines go.

“There’s technological advancement, and there’s cost savings,” said Hall. “To me, this is a very easy $17,000 to save.”

Hall also noted that he was also in favor of pursuing the claim that Cumberland received an increased voter turnout as a result of the change.

Ocean City’s last two elections have been the worst voter turnouts in the town’s history. Only 23.5 percent of a possible 6,470 registered voters cast a vote in the 2008 election, eclipsing the previous record of 24 percent from the 2006 election.

“Local issues are different than national issues, and I think that moving this would dramatically change the way residents vote in Ocean City so I am in support for the way that the council appears to be headed,” said Mayor Rick Meehan just prior to Tuesday’s vote.

In the end, the council bucked its recent trend toward technological advancements and cost savings when it came to the election.

“It’s our day to shine,” said Councilman Jim Hall. “Let’s leave it as our special day every four years.”