Gaithersburg considers scrapping write-in voting

Gaithersburg considers scrapping write-in voting

All candidates would have to qualify for ballot, collect signatures

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Photo by Dan Schere

The Gaithersburg City Council on Monday discussed the possibility of no longer allowing write-in candidates in future elections.

After the city’s most recent election last fall, the city’s six-member Board of Supervisors of Elections met to discuss possible changes to future elections. One recommendation is to eliminate write-in votes because of the “low bar” for candidates to get on the ballot. The board said having write-in candidates confuses voters and election workers.

To be eligible to get on the ballot in Gaithersburg, candidates must be registered voters in the city of Gaithersburg and collect at least 100 signatures from registered Gaithersburg voters.

Candidates must also perform different tasks such as submitting a campaign finance report, writing a biographical summary and attending mandatory candidate trainings.

For the 2019 election, candidates had to file by Aug. 22. Write-ins had to file by Oct. 18.

Write-in candidates are allowed to run, without appearing on the ballot, if they file a certificate of candidacy at least six days before the first early voting session, are a registered voter and are a city resident. Write-in candidates do not have to collect signatures.

Although write-in candidates don’t appear on the ballot, the city must certify them or else votes cast for them will not count.

The city posts biographical information and headshots of both candidates on the ballot and write-in candidates.

During last year’s election, incumbent City Council Members Ryan Spiegel, Robert Wu and Neil Harris were re-elected to four-year-terms.

Their only opposition was from write-in candidates Juan Aguirre, Nicole Ukiteyedi and Carol Johnson. Aguirre and Ukiteyedi previously tried to get on the ballot, but were disqualified by the board after not meeting the 100-signature requirement.

The final vote totals were 2,021 for Wu, 1,672 for Harris and 1,658 for Spiegel. Aguirre got 476 votes, Carol Johnson got 435 and Ukiteyedi got 117.

Ty Hardaway, a board of supervisors member who attended Monday night’s meeting, said having one set of rules for all candidates in Gaithersburg would simplify the elections process and reward traditional candidates who met the 100-signature requirement.

“I didn’t think it was fair to those who met the conventional criteria,” he said of the city’s most recent election.

Spiegel said on Monday that the intention behind certifying write-ins has been to increase interest in the city’s elections. But he said there are flaws because write-ins can bypass requirements that candidates appearing on the ballot must meet.

“You get a blurring of the line. … What’s the advantage of being that kind of candidate [on the ballot] versus being one of those who can swoop in at the last minute. … You can sort of make an end-run around that process,” he said.

Spiegel said he isn’t necessarily opposed to write-ins, but thinks government resources should not be used to advertise them on the city’s website.

“We need to recognize the distinction between a candidate and a write-in candidate more starkly,” he said.

Harris said he agrees that the “bar is really low” for regular candidates as it is.

“And if you’re running, you need to get out and talk to people, and getting 100 signatures is not that many,” he said. “If you want to get people to vote for you, you have to be out there where people are.”

Other council members and Mayor Jud Ashman also said they are open to eliminating write-ins, although some were more adamant than others.

Council Member Mike Sesma said in an interview after the meeting that he doesn’t have any problem with write-in candidates, but also would not oppose getting rid of them.

If the council decides to make changes, Sesma said, the city attorney would need to draft a charter amendment and there would be a public hearing. It is not clear yet whether that will happen, he said.

During Monday’s meeting, which the city called a “debrief” session from the last election, council members also discussed several other recommendations by the Board of Supervisors. Those included moving up the deadline for receiving absentee ballots to Election Day, instead of two days after.

The board also proposed the idea of studying a vote-by-mail system similar to the one used to Rockville last year.

Council members all expressed support for doing more research, noting that Rockville’s voter turnout nearly doubled from the previous election. But the cost of administering Rockville’s election, they pointed out, was also considerably higher than in Gaithersburg.

Dan Schere can be reached at daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com

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