Sunday, October 28, 2012

Questions and answers

Early voting in Maryland began today!  I'm probably going to vote tomorrow.  I already blogged about Question 7 (and I'm still undecided - I might undervote on this one), so here are my thoughts on the other Maryland and Montgomery County ballot questions.  Obviously, I endorse Obama for president, and Democrats for all partisan races (with some very narrow exceptions which don't involve voting for or enabling Republicans - e.g., if I were voting in the DC at-large Council race, I'd probably vote for two independents, though I'm not sure which two).

Quick summary:  For 1-6 and A, against B, no endorsement on 7.

Questions 1, 2, and 3 are state constitutional amendments, passed by the General Assembly, which need to be ratified by the voters.

Questions 1 and 2:  These are very similar to Question 3 from 2010.  Every county has an Orphans' Court which deals with estates and guardianships (except Montgomery and Harford Counties, where these matters are handled by the regular Circuit Court).  Unlike other judges in Maryland, Orphans' Court judges are not required to be lawyers.  As I understand it, there is a divide between the more populous and less populous parts of the state:  in the less populous areas, the Orphans' Court doesn't get much business, so it's a part-time gig.  In the more populous areas, it's a full-time job, so it has been suggested that it makes more sense to require legal experience.  So in 2010, we amended the constitution to require that Baltimore City Orphans' Court judges be members of the Maryland bar.  Questions 1 and 2 would make the same amendments regarding Prince George's County and Baltimore County (respectively).

I don't have much of an opinion on the substance (and the general issue isn't relevant to my county).  But each of these amendments, in order to be ratified, has to get a majority of votes statewide and a majority of votes in the relevant county.  So I'll be voting FOR both of them, to give the people of Prince George's and Baltimore Counties the opportunity to make their own decisions.  I don't know what I'd do if I lived in one of those counties.

Question 3:  Currently, an elected official who is convicted of or pleads guilty to any felony, or a misdemeanor related to their official duties, is automatically removed from office.  However, this doesn't happen until the conviction becomes final; in the case of a guilty plea, they're not removed from office until after they're sentenced.  So you have cases like former Prince George's County Councilmember Leslie Johnson, who pleaded guilty to corruption charges (including destroying evidence by flushing checks down the toilet and hiding cash in her bra), but then kept her Council seat (and kept collecting her salary) until the sentencing.  This constitutional amendment would fix that, by removing the official from office immediately after a guilty plea.  This seems like an obvious FOR vote - I can't imagine there will be any significant opposition.

Questions 4, 5, and 6 are laws passed by the General Assembly that were forced to a referendum by voters collecting the required number of petition signatures.  If they pass, the laws will go into effect (or in the case of 5, remain in effect); if not, the laws are void.

Question 4:  This is the Maryland "Dream Act", which will enable undocumented immigrant students who graduated from Maryland high schools to attend Maryland state universities at the in-state tuition rate.  (Because the bill was watered down during the legislative process, they have to go to community college for two years before they can transfer to a four-year college.)  These students were brought to the United States as children, and may not remember any other country.  As President Obama said in June, "They are Americans in their heart, in their minds, in every single way but one:  on paper."  Question 4 gives them the opportunity to get a college education that many of them could not afford otherwise.  As a member of the University of Maryland community, I also support Question 4 because we want to be able to recruit the best students we can get, regardless of immigration status.

Of course, this doesn't solve the much larger issues.  But those will have to be solved at the federal level, since the federal government has jurisdiction over immigration and citizenship.  The federal DREAM Act (which would have provided a path to citizenship) died in the Senate in December 2010 due to a Republican filibuster.  In the meantime, until Congress can get its act together, states such as Maryland are doing what they can.

For more information and other reasons to vote FOR Question 4, see the FAQ from Jews United for Justice's Dream For Equality campaign.

Question 5:  In 2011, the General Assembly passed a congressional redistricting plan, as required to accommodate the population shifts in the 2010 Census.  This plan has been forced to a referendum, but whatever happens with Question 5, this map will be in effect for the 2012 election (i.e. they're not going to call a do-over election with new districts) and any special elections during the 113th Congress.  If Question 5 passes, this map will remain in effect until after the 2020 Census.  If Question 5 doesn't pass, the General Assembly will have to pass a new map for the 2014 election.  Nothing (except political pressure) would prevent them from passing the same map again or one substantially similar, and nothing (except organizer fatigue) would prevent that map from being forced to a referendum again.

Looking at the map, there's no denying the charge that its opponents make against it:  it is blatant partisan gerrymandering, with some of the most ridiculous-looking districts in the country.  Maryland's current House delegation is 6 Democrats and 2 Republicans, and under the new map, Maryland is expected to elect 7 Democrats and 1 Republican.  This is achieved by redrawing the currently Republican 6th District (western Maryland) so that it includes enough of Montgomery County to give it a Democratic majority.

Partisan gerrymandering is legal in most states (including Maryland) and has been upheld by the Supreme Court as constitutional.  The only national requirements are that districts be of equal population, and (per the Voting Rights Act) that they not have racially discriminatory effects.  (The 2011 Maryland map was upheld in federal court on those grounds.)  I would support federal legislation to ban or limit partisan gerrymandering across the country (either by changing the redistricting process or by, e.g., requiring that districts meet some standard of compactness).  But that's not what we're voting on - we're only voting on Maryland.  Given that Republicans are using the redistricting process to great advantage in much larger states such as Texas and Florida, I see no reason why a small blue state like Maryland (one of the few states where Democrats are benefiting from the post-2010 redistricting) should unilaterally disarm.

So I'm voting FOR 5 for partisan reasons:  I want to elect more Democrats to the House.  While procedural issues like how we draw districts are important, they're not more important than the substantive issues that Congress will face over the next 10 years, and it matters whether we have a Democratic House or a Republican House voting on those issues.

If Question 5 fails, I hope the General Assembly goes a step further and draws a map with Democratic majorities in all 8 districts.  This can be done by splitting up the Eastern Shore, and/or combining it with parts of Baltimore (contiguity over water!).

Question 6:  This will bring civil marriage equality to Maryland!  It also contains language guaranteeing that religious organizations don't have to perform marriages they don't want to (which is entirely superfluous, since that is already guaranteed by the First Amendment, but if this superfluous language brings people on board, I can't complain).  If Question 6 passes, Maryland will be the first state where marriage equality wins at the ballot box (along with Maine, where the polls close at the same time; sorry, Washington, but you're a few hours later).  FOR!

In Montgomery County, Question A is a charter amendment, and Question B is a law passed by the County Council that was petitioned to a referendum.

Question A:  The County Charter currently provides for a merit system for civil service employees.  This amendment would "allow the County to operate a program within the merit system to recruit and select qualified individuals with severe physical and mental disabilities on a noncompetitive basis".  The charter amendment contains no details about the program; the details would be left to the County Council.  I'm voting FOR Question A because it provides employment opportunities to (qualified) individuals with disabilities.

Question B:  This law would end "effects bargaining" for police employees, i.e. the right to collective bargaining to negotiate the effects on employees of certain management decisions.  Compared to some of the recent high-profile laws and initiatives limiting collective bargaining around the country, the effects of this would be relatively small, since collective bargaining would remain intact for negotiations about salaries, hours, etc.  However, in the current political climate, with everything that has been happening in Wisconsin, Ohio, etc., any new limits on collective bargaining are dangerous and must be opposed.

It infuriates me to see pro-Question B ads on the sides of buses, paid for by Montgomery County with public funds.   I understand the county's rationale (even if I don't agree with it): the County Council passed a law and is now defending it, in the same way that a federal, state, or local government would defend its laws if they were challenged in court.  But the inexcusable part is that these ads rely on anti-union rhetoric.  If even MONTGOMERY FRICKIN COUNTY is trying to turn its citizens against public employee unions, this is a clear sign that we're in a larger struggle and can't give even an inch.  Vote AGAINST Question B.

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