Only 16 percent of Montgomery County’s registered voters turned out to vote in the June 24 primary election and a council-appointed task force has been studying ways to both boost participation and uphold voting rights.
The Right to Vote Task Force presented its 59 recommendations to the council Tuesday.
Among its recommendations were ways to increase voter registration, including a pending registration process in which eligible, unregistered residents would be entered into a system allowing the county or state to reach out to them to register them to vote.
Councilman George L. Leventhal (D-At large) of Takoma Park said that simply increasing registration wouldn’t necessarily increase turnout.
It’s not hard to register or vote, Councilman Philip M. Andrews said.
“The primary question is ‘Why are not more people voting?’” said Andrews (D-Dist. 3) of Gaithersburg.
Council President Craig L. Rice levied partial blame for the low turnout on the media.
Media outlets rarely report the good government does, giving voters a negative impression of their local leaders and government, therefore disengaging voters from the process, said Rice (D-Dist. 2) of Germantown.
“If the reports are always about the failure of government and not the success of government, how do you expect people to be engaged?” he asked.
Councilwoman Nancy Navarro said the county needs to look at its own tools to publicize its good work.
Candidates have blamed the low turnout on Maryland moving its primary from September to June this year. Councilwoman Nancy Floreen (D-At large) of Garrett Park asked if it was possible to consider a regional primary day to help with voter turnout.
Councilman Roger Berliner (D-Dist. 1) of Bethesda said he was concerned with actions the council could take to make a difference.
To engage voters, the task force recommended the county develop a mobile app to provide information on early voting, the ballot, polling locations and more.
It also recommended the county urge the state’s political parties to open their primaries to unaffiliated voters, something the parties can easily do without a change in the law, and that the county phase-in rank choice voting, which would allow voters to rank their choices first, second, third and so on.
While rank choice voting would require the state to purchase new voting equipment that can tabulate various forms of balloting, Timothy Male, chairman of the task force, said his group saw rank choice voting as a way to increase the power of an individual’s vote in races with a variety of candidates.
Councilwoman Cherri Branson said voters need a reason, an incentive to head to the polls.
She highlighted how record high spending in the primary also accompanied the low turnout.
“You can’t pay people to be interested,” said Branson (D-Dist. 5) of Silver Spring. “People will either be interested or not interested depending on the substance of what is happening. This is truly a problem you can’t throw money at.”
Low turnout has everything to do with whether people believe their vote matters, she said.
The council also is considering legislation to establish a public financing system for elections.
A public hearing on the task force’s report is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Sept. 23.