NEW FOR TUESDAY: OC’s Merged Election To Feature Two Separate Ballots; Tensions Run High During Discussion

OCEAN CITY – A moment in history was made last night as the City Council decided to authorize the consolidation of its municipal election with general election day.

The question to consolidate Ocean City’s individual municipal Election Day in October with National Election Day in November has been brought up throughout the town’s history, as recently as twice in the last year, and on June 18 the council voted 4-3, Council members Joe Hall, Doug Cymek, Mary Knight and Lloyd Martin in favor and Brent Ashley, Jim Hall and Margaret Pillas opposed (as well as the mayor, who does not have a vote on the matter), to instruct City Solicitor Guy Ayres to draft a charter amendment to make the switch in hopes of attracting a larger voter turnout as well save on election costs.

Last week Ayres had circulated a memo of responses to concerns about conducting the consolidation. The two highlighted points were that the change would result in a one-time cost, estimated at $10,000-$15,000, to re-program the Worcester County’s polls to include Ocean City, as well as for the town’s election to be held by the county as part of the general election, legislation authorizing such must be passed by the General Assembly, which would not be done in time for this Fall’s elections.

Though Maryland Municipal League (MML) Director of Research Jim Peck confirmed Ocean City does not need the General Assembly’s approval to move forward in consolidating election days last week, Ayres reported this week that the County Board of Elections is unwilling to move forward in consolidating the elections without the state’s approval.

“Quite frankly, the enthusiasm from the county board and the state board for this is very little,” Ayres said. “There is nothing that prohibits you from changing the election date and still having a separate election … and that wouldn’t require any participation whatsoever by the state or the county.”

In swift fashion, Councilman Lloyd Martin made a motion to change Ocean City’s Election Day to coincide with the general election (historically the first Tuesday in November) but with the intention to follow Ayres’ advice and to have a separate polling place for the town’s election.

Martin said that the change to the same date but two separate ballots would be a first step and if it proves to be effective in increasing voter turnout then it could be the push to have the state agree to consolidate the municipal and general election ballots all together.

Over the last 10 years, Councilman Joe Hall has consistently advocated for the consolidation in election days and to add Ocean City’s candidates to the general ballot. He was against the idea of conducting two separate ballots because in the end it will not save in election costs.

“My whole idea is to be voter friendly and voter user friendly and I believe it being a one-ballot issue is where it is best for the Town of Ocean City … From what I get from this motion is there would be zero cost savings to the town, we would still be maintaining our own voter roll, we would still be maintaining our own municipal election,” he said.

Councilwoman Mary Knight agreed with the “one-stop shop” concept. “What’s the difference?,” she asked. “I go in and I vote and then I walk two steps in the convention center and vote again.”

Knight also apologized for not voting for the change in the past.

“I have to admit I was selfish before with the two prior votes because I had it in my mind that it was my day,” she said. “It’s not my day, it’s your day. I represent you all and that is what I am doing tonight.”

Looking at a chart exemplifying a steady decrease in voter turnout over the years, Councilman Doug Cymek called out Joe Hall in his sudden opposition.

“You said this was about confusion and solving that and you said that it was about increase in voter turnout, it is not a money issue, it is about what these people want,” he said.

During public comment, Joe Groves, spokesman for the Citizens For Ocean City, asserted that certain council members were missing the point.

“It would be great if we saved money, but that’s not what it is about as an elected official, it is about participation in this great country,” he said. “It is about getting people to vote, and allowing them to vote, that is what it is about. Four of you, if you decide to run, are up for re-election, statistics will typically show you that high voter turnout helps incumbents, it just does.”

Councilman Brent Ashley, who has voted against election consolidation because he firmly believes in keeping the tradition of Ocean City’s elections alive, interjected that Ocean City has never held a secret ballot.

“The elections are well advertised …  where does government’s role stop and individual responsibility begin,” he asked. “If you don’t know when the election is call City Hall and ask. We can’t continue to be a nanny society.”

A candidate in this year’s municipal elections, John Adkins, said he is in favor of changing the date but is in agreement with Joe Hall that the decision should be partially factored on savings in costs.

“Since this council was formed, they have done everything to cut costs,” he said. “I agree with Joe I think we can change the date and ask the county to reprogram it … once the program is done, then it saves this city and the taxpayers money year after year.”

Edward Smith, a resident living in Ocean City for 46 years, was the only citizen to speak against the change, arguing that only issue-educated citizens should be voting anyways, and they should know when the election is being held.

Sean Rox, who is also running for council in the fall, pointed out that schools are closed on national election day and government employees are off, and they will also be given the opportunity to now vote in Ocean City’s elections.

“It is not fair that school teachers or government employees don’t have the same rights as somebody who is unemployed, I don’t think nostalgia is an excuse for voter suppression,” he said. “I think that people who work for the government should have the same rights as everybody else.”

Former City Manager Dennis Dare explained that the state legislature has made a number of moves to increase voter turnout on a state level and the local government should do the same.

For example, over 10 years ago, the legislature passed Motor Voter Registration, which allows an individual to register to vote the same time he or she registers a vehicle. A couple of years ago a law was passed to allow early voting for those who would not be able to vote on election day, and finally a law has also been passed that identification is now not required to vote, according to Dare.

“The state legislature has worked in at least three different ways that I can think of to engage the citizens in the voting process and I would hope that on the local level we can do something like this to allow everybody to participate in their government,” he said.

Councilwoman Margaret Pillas had originally voted against consolidating the election days a couple of weeks ago because there had not been a chance for public input.

“I do appreciate the public’s input and I was since the beginning for the change in the date because I think it is important to get the vote out,” she said. “I like the idea of taking it into two rooms because it does solve the problem. I am just hoping that it does not cause more confusion.”

Cymek asked council meeting attendees to raise their hands if they supported the consolidation of elections days and the entire room raised their room except for one individual.

“Ladies and gentleman on the council, that is what it is all about,” Cymek said pointing to the chart. “It has been a steady spiraling downward turnout that we are trying to correct.”

At that point, the council voted 5-2, with Cymek, Jim Hall, Knight, Pillas and Martin in favor and Joe Hall and Brent Ashley opposed, to consolidate Ocean City’s municipal Election Day with national Election Day.

Pillas then made a motion to conduct Ocean City’s elections on a separate ballot in a separate room of the Roland E. Powell Convention Center on the approved consolidated Election Day and the council voted the same, 5-2, to approve.

The next vote was 5-2, the same members in favor, to approve the charter amendment that states, “All regular Municipal elections under the provisions of this Charter shall be held on the Tuesday following the first Monday in November in every even numbered year at hours to be prescribed by the Board of Elections Supervisors.”