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Apartments a problem in Gaithersburg elections

Gaithersburg logoGAITHERSBURG — The members of Gaithersburg’s Board of Supervisors of Elections discussed the past and future of the city’s electoral processes at the City Council meeting Monday night. 

Mayor Jud Ashman and the City Council convened for a work session, during which City Attorney Lynn Board and Elections Clerk Lauren Klingler presented a “debrief” of last fall’s municipal election, outlining changes made to the city’s electoral process and proposals for future modifications.

In the November 2017 election, in which Ashman and Council members Michael Sesma and Laurie-Anne Sayles were all elected to four-year terms, 3,396 residents, or 9.61 percent of the city’s registered voters cast ballots either on Election Day, at early voting or via absentee ballots.

“We all admit that’s not a great number and we’d like to see it higher,” Board said. Board and Klingler presented maps showing that turnout was highest in the east side of the city, likely due to the close proximity to City Hall, which is a polling place and was the site of both early voting sessions in the last election.

“Gaithersburg has a high percentage of residents in apartment buildings and I wonder if that might be a reason for our low turnout,” said Council member Neil Harris. “For candidates campaigning, it’s very hard to knock on doors at apartment buildings.”

Changes implemented in the recent election included a new polling place at Crown Farm, replacing the Izaak Walton League, the introduction of a new online campaign finance reporting system, and BallotTrax, an online program which allows absentee voters to monitor the status of their ballots.

Staff presented a proposed change to Section the city charter pertaining to candidates who choose to run as a slate. The change would formally define slates and require reporting of slate expenditures.

“I should note that there was a minority opinion on the board of supervisors of Elections that really recommended against any change to slates and our codes and said that we should delete references to slates in our existing provisions,” Board said. “The thought process behind that was that the creation of a slate almost creates a double reporting requirement for the same candidate when in the past our experience has been that when candidates hold joint campaign events, they already report that on their individual expenditures.”

Ashman expressed agreement with this opinion.

“If the purpose of the reporting is to see where the money comes from and where it’s going, I don’t see what the public gains, what the staff gains or what we gain by adding a level of complexity with a new entity,” Ashman said. 

“I’ve run kind of as a slate in two cases, once with Mike and twice with Cathy,” he continued, referring to Sesma and former Council member Cathy C. Drzyzgula. “In both cases, I raised money individually, and our expenditures were joint, shared 50/50 and the public knew where it was coming from.”

“I think if we’re even considering not having this as a part of the ordinance, we have to distinguish between what expenditures candidates and groups of candidates are allowed to make, whether it’s a violation, at  what amount,” said Council member Laurie-Anne Sayles. “We need clarity in this area because working together, pulling money together brings about an advantage. When we’re running our elections, we need to make sure there’s a level playing field, and if there is an advantage, we need to clarify what that is.”

In last fall’s election, Sayles unseated former Council member Yvette Monroe, who had been appointed to fill the balance of late Council Member Henry F. Marraffa’s final term. During the campaign, Ashman, who ran unopposed, endorsed and campaigned alongside Monroe and Sesma, who was also running for re-election.

Board said that staff would like to implement a student election aide program, modeled after Montgomery County’s program, in which local students would earn SSL hours by helping to set up polling sites, assisting election judges and other tasks.

Gaithersburg’s next municipal election is scheduled for November 2019. The City Council seats presently held by Harris, Council vice president Ryan Spiegel, and Council member Robert Wu will be up for election.

@petersrouleau

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