Bring your reading glasses to the voting booth -- Gazette.Net



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Statewide ballot initiatives like same-sex marriage are getting most of the attention, but Maryland voters likely will spend more time at the poll checking boxes related to zoo funding in Baltimore city or the definition of the word “copy” in Anne Arundel County.

Statewide, 66 local questions in 10 counties and Baltimore city are on the ballot, the most in more than two decades.

That’s in addition to the seven statewide questions that all Marylanders will be asked to weigh in on.

Voters in Anne Arundel County will need the most time at the ballot box, facing 15 local questions, such as how to kick out a malfeasant county executive or council member. Including national and statewide offices and issues, Anne Arundel voters will have 30 bubbles to fill in.

One question asks voters to define “copy or copies” to include paper or digital copies, for the purposes of the budget process. A county draft ballot on the state Board of Elections website is three pages.

The plethora of ballot questions in Maryland is the most since 2002, when there were 57 local referendums and three statewide, according to the State Board of Elections website.

Paul Herrnson, director of the center for American Policy and Citizenship at the University of Maryland, College Park, said officials are elected to make key public policy decisions.

“On some issues, politicians would rather have voters weigh in,” he said. “They may feel that the gut feelings of the voters are more important, or they may feel that specific issues are too risky.”

There are two schools of thought on ballot initiatives, Herrnson said. One is that we elect politicians to do the research and make the considerations for us, so there should be fewer initiatives. The other is that the voters should decide on issues in a more direct-democracy way.

“The problem with the second point of view is that most people don’t understand the issue, or haven’t researched it,” Herrnson said. “In fact, they might not even understand the wording of the question on the ballot.”

That might be the case in Frederick County, where voters will weigh whether to adopt a charter, which would change the way the county is governed from its current five-member board of commissioners to a county executive and council format — although the language on the ballot only asks “Do you approve the adoption of the Charter of Frederick County proposed by the Frederick County Charter Board?”

A similar question made it to the Frederick County ballot in 1991, and was rejected by 67 percent of voters.

Montgomery County is weighing a charter amendment to hire individuals with disabilities, as well as a controversial measure that would limit the scope of county police bargaining rights to traditional issues such as pay and vacation time.

Prince George’s County is looking at more than $626.7 million in borrowing bills, including $193 million for public works and transportation projects. Also up for consideration are two charter amendments to speed up the legislative processes for multiyear contracts and redistricting.

In Baltimore city, voters will be asked to approve $100 million in loans for community development and city facilities, like the Maryland Zoo. City residents also will have four charter amendments to weigh, including one to establish a stormwater utility.

Baltimore County voters will be asked to make decisions about whether the county should borrow $255.4 million for public works, rural land preservation and education.

In the past, these ballot questions — especially those concerning counties borrowing money or issuing bonds — have been rubber-stamped by voters throughout the state. Since 2004, only 7 percent of local ballot questions in Maryland have been defeated in the voting booth.

In previous years, the long ballots would have worried Ross Goldstein, deputy administrator of the State Board of Elections. But with early voting running from Oct. 27 through Nov. 1, Goldstein said he hopes long lines won’t become an issue.

“Before early voting, it would be a huge concern,” Goldstein said. “But with six days of early voting, people will spread out when they vote.”

The elections board is hoping for about 80 percent turnout of the 3.5 million registered voters in the state. The 2008 election brought out about 78 percent of registered voters. The only time in a quarter-century that turnout broke 80 percent was in 1992, when a controversial ballot question asked voters to weigh in on abortion.

“These are the most high-profile ballot questions we’ve had in a while, and that could increase turnout,” Goldstein said, referring to same-sex marriage, gambling and the Dream Act.

hnunn@gazette.net