MoCo is a Turnout Outlier

By Adam Pagnucco.

Yesterday, I published turnout data through May 26 showing that MoCo was dead last in Maryland. Today, I am publishing turnout data through May 28 showing the same thing. Folks, with 5 days to go until election day, it’s time to wonder what’s going on.

On May 26, 3.9% of those who received a mail ballot in MoCo were recorded as returning it. The return rate for the state was 14.1%. On May 28, MoCo’s return rate was 6.5%, still lagging the state’s rate of 16.5% and still the last in Maryland.

Compare MoCo to Frederick. On May 26, MoCo’s return rate was 3.9% and Frederick’s was 6.4%. On May 28, MoCo’s return rate was 6.5% and Frederick’s was 11.2%.

Another comparison worth noting is Baltimore City, which was plagued with late mailouts of ballots. The city’s return rate was 12.1% on May 26 and 13.7% on May 28, far higher than MoCo.

It’s worth noting that MoCo had one of the lower turnout rates in the state in the 2016 primary, although it was not at the bottom.

So what’s going on here? It’s a little early to say. Stories of folks getting late ballots or even getting ballots for people no longer living at their address are common on social media here. The county boards of election could also have different processing times for ballots. (David Lublin described how this works earlier today.) Or it could all be a timing fluke and MoCo could wind up in the bottom quarter of turnout, but not be an outlier, as happened four years ago.

If you’re concerned about this, the best thing to do is vote!

In the meantime, we will keep watching this data.

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Added Suspense to this Year’s Vote Count

Counting the votes for this year’s election will be different. Voters will need to exercise patience in awaiting the final results. Both politicians and voters need to understand it and that the delay is due to the changes made and are not per se evidence of fraud or incompetence.

The delayed primary election will occur primarily by mail. All active registered voters have been sent a ballot. A limited number of polling places will be open on June 2nd but the State is heavily encouraging Marylanders to cast their ballot by mail during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

As Donna Duncan at the State Administrative Board of Elections explained to me, counties have not only begun to receive ballots back from votes but also to count them. Each county has a live feed where you can watch the canvass room. Baltimore City has the hottest primaries in the state this year, and you can watch the count live or previous recordings if you find C-SPAN too fast paced for your taste.

After opening the ballot and making sure it complies with the legal requirements, including that the oath on the envelope has been signed, canvassers feed the ballots into machines. Many counties use the normal electronic machines that voters feed the same ballots into on election day. Some of the populous counties have machines that can read ballots much more quickly.

People in each county who have signed non-disclosure agreements have the results but may not legally reveal them until the appropriate time. The State Board of Elections plans to authorize the release of results from all ballots counted as of Sunday, May 31st when the polls close on June 2nd at 8pm, or very shortly thereafter. Recall that in the last general election results were delayed for several hours due to a court order that required keeping some polling places open beyond the normal scheduled closing time.

That same evening, counties should also report the votes cast at the polls. There are fewer polling places, so maybe it will go more quickly. On the other hand, anyone who is in line by 8pm can still vote, so any (hopefully socially distanced) lines will cause delay.

Normally, by the end of election night, we await the absentee vote count to finalize the results. Marylanders have been more prone to vote early instead of absentee, but this year will obviously be different, and the uncounted ballots weigh far more heavily. People tend to mail or to drop off their ballots close to the day, so a blizzard of ballots will still require counting. Any ballot postmarked on or before primary day and received by 10am on June 12th will be tallied.

Think of it as an extended and much larger absentee count. All of those envelopes will need to be opened, checked and counted. Each county will likely need to provide updates on the count as it proceeds. I would expect final counts to occur on June 12th at the very earliest and it could be later for jurisdictions depending on the number of ballots that need processing.

In short, patience is a required virtue this election season.

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MCPS Provides Details on Central Office Spending

By Adam Pagnucco.

In a recent post, I mentioned that MCPS’s central office spending had increased by 31% in three years, which was roughly triple the rate of spending growth in the school system’s entire budget. Derek Turner, Chief Communications Officer for MCPS, provided this explanation to us on changes in that spending category.

The increase in the MCPS Category I budget reflects a significant investment (nearly $9 million between 2017- 2020) to replace legacy business systems that are inefficient and ineffective for a school system of 167, 000 students and 24,000 employees. For context, MCPS has a set of legacy business systems that include paper-based timekeeping for employees; siloed financial systems that do not speak with one another; and a human resources system that relies heavily on the manual input of information. Given how outdated the systems are, when these systems come online, we will believe it will lead to long-term savings for the school system. Details about this increase can be found in the budget documents archived here: https://www.montgomeryschoolsmd.org/departments/budget/archive.aspx.

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Turnout Off to Slow Start

By Adam Pagnucco.

Maryland is holding its first-ever mostly vote-by-mail election. The State Board of Elections (SBE) has been mailing ballots to voters for weeks. Voters may mail ballots back to SBE, drop them off at vote centers or vote at the vote centers on election day (June 2).

SBE has had some delays in mailing ballots, especially in Baltimore City and Montgomery County. The fact that the ballots are marked with the wrong date may be an issue for some voters. And since this is the first primarily vote-by-mail election, there may be voters who have not adjusted and anticipate voting at their precincts.

Could the potential problems above have impacted voting? The table below shows ballots sent by SBE and received by SBE by county as of May 26 (yesterday). Also included are turnout rates from the 2016 primary. Turnout is waaaaaaay down – so far. Montgomery County’s turnout rate of 4% is particularly abysmal. But let’s bear in mind that there were still seven days to go until the election when this data was released.

These totals are going to increase in coming days. I’ll issue periodic updates.

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Where Are They Getting Their Money?

By Adam Pagnucco.

Recently, I posted totals raised and spent by candidates for school board in the primary. Today, let’s look at the geography of contributions in the at-large race.

The at-large race, easily the most contentious MoCo school board contest since the early 1980s, has many overtones of race and class owing to its discussion of school boundaries. In MoCo, race and class are synonymous with geography. The county has huge differences in race, language and economics between its various subdivisions. Indeed, most of the county’s wealth is concentrated in a handful of zip codes. The county has noticeable racial segregation in its schools as well as significant inequity between them.

I broke down the geography for individual contributions to five candidates – Stephen Austin, Sunil Dasgupta, Jay Guan, Lynne Harris and Dalbin Osorio. (Pavel Sukhobok, the 4th-leading fundraiser, only has 7 contributors other than himself.) For each candidate, I tabulated the number of contributors and total contributed by individuals for each major local area in the county. These figures exclude self-funding, PACs, businesses and unions.

Two areas require definitions. The first is the Downcounty Crescent, the areas in and around the Beltway that play a disproportionate part in Democratic primary voting. The Crescent includes Bethesda, Cabin John, Glen Echo, Chevy Chase, Kensington, Takoma Park and the Silver Spring zip codes of 20901 and 20910. This area trends left – with some places going far left – and is largely responsible for sending Jamie Raskin to Congress. The second is Upcounty, which I define as including Ashton, Barnesville, Boyds, Brookeville, Clarksburg, Damascus, Dickerson, Gaithersburg, Germantown, Laytonsville, Montgomery Village, Olney, Poolesville, Sandy Spring and Spencerville. This area contains a greater proportion of moderate Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliated voters than other parts of the county.

Now let’s look at the candidates.

Stephen Austin

Almost two-thirds of Austin’s contributors and 75% of his individual funding comes from Bethesda, Potomac and North Potomac. These areas are home to some of the highest-performing high school clusters in the county. Austin is a leading critic of MCPS’s recent school boundary analysis. It makes sense that parents in these areas would be skeptical of having their kids sent to other schools.

Sunil Dasgupta

Silver Spring, the county’s largest geographic unit, accounts for 28% of Dasgupta’s contributors and 31% of his individual fundraising. The rest of his contributions are well dispersed.

Jay Guan

The vast majority of Guan’s contributors are east Asian so it makes sense that his geography would match the most heavily Asian high school clusters in the county (like Wootton, Churchill, Richard Montgomery and Clarksburg). Guan lives in Clarksburg so it’s no surprise that he is the runaway fundraising leader there.

Lynne Harris

Silver Spring is Harris’s biggest source of campaign funds – by far.

Dalbin Osorio

A huge majority of Osorio’s fundraising is coming from outside the county, with most of that coming from out of state.

Here is a summary of fundraising from four key areas in this race.

And so the contribution geography reveals the appeal of each of these candidates, at least in terms of fundraising. Austin has raised the most from Bethesda and has split Potomac with Guan. Guan has raised the most from east Asians, Rockville and Upcounty. Silver Spring and Takoma Park are going with Dasgupta and (to a lesser extent) Harris, although Dasgupta has the most geographic diversity of any candidate. Osorio needs to find more contributors who live in MoCo.

It’s a shame that the State Board of Elections won’t be releasing precinct-level data in the primary because then we could see if votes follow money. Let’s hope that we can get precinct results in the general election.

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Former allies spar in Kensington mayoral debate

from a correspondent:

Subdued it was not.

Candidates in Kensington’s June 1 mayoral election met in a virtual debate over the weekend and clashed about the quality of development in town, enforcement of town regulations, and civility in Town government.

The debate took place on the Zoom videoconferencing platform and revealed sharp differences between the two candidates — the two-term incumbent, Tracey Furman, and her immediate predecessor, Peter Fosselman.

They are erstwhile allies and both said at the outset of the 70-minute debate that they agreed on many subjects.

It didn’t take long for disagreements to become apparent, however.

The mayor was notably pointed in her criticism. At one point, she accused Fosselman of “making this stuff up” — a reference to his criticism about a lack of civility in Kensington’s official life. Furman also took issue with Fosselman’s emphasis on enforcing Town regulations on such matters as graffiti and illegal signage, saying she thought he “would like to live more in a gated-type community.”

The candidates disagreed at some length about the type and quality of development in Kensington, which has about 2,500 residents and a recent tradition of mostly sedate local politics.

Fosselman asserted that “we are on our way to becoming a senior center” for Montgomery County, noting that two housing projects for older people have been approved and another is under preliminary review (but may not be exclusively for seniors).

“We can do better than what we’re getting,” Fosselman said, adding that the Town should seek out developers and encourage them to take on attractive projects. He noted a section of town familiarly known as “Gasoline Alley,” behind the volunteer fire department on Connecticut Avenue, “is long overdue for redevelopment. It would be perfect place to establish a brewery, a distillery, a restaurant-incubator with condos on upper floors.”

Another prospective project he mentioned was a community center with a pool, perhaps with a secondary use such an education center. “We need to put a plan in place and make these things happen,” said Fosselman, who was Kensington mayor for 10 years until stepping down in 2016. He added it is essential that proposed projects be reviewed by the Town’s advisory development review board before they reach the mayor and council.

Furman, who is in her first competitive race for mayor, responded by saying Fosselman’s comments about Kensington’s becoming senior center for the county were “a little bit misleading.” She noted that one of the projects, the 135-unit Modena Reserve on Metropolitan Avenue, hard by CSX Transportation railway tracks, will be “a luxury senior facility” and that two 1930s buildings nearby will be rehabilitated as part of the project’s amenities.

Another, more controversial senior housing project on Knowles Avenue, near the congested intersection with Connecticut, will be for people aged 62 and older. “These will be vibrant people that move in,” Furman said, noting that a retail or mixed-use project at the site would create even more vehicular traffic than senior housing.

Furman said the Modena and Knowles projects “are just going to be great additions to our town and they will fit within our sector plan.”

She also noted the Town’s sector plan, which was revised and updated in 2012 after considerable controversy, imposes building-height restrictions that render some prospective projects “not economically viable.” She said she supports height limitations but noted they “make some of the projects that people want more difficult to get.”

Furman’s “gated-type community” remark came in response to Fosselman’s comments that enforcement of Town code provisions has been wanting. He said he advocates enforcing regulations, which Townspeople backed, to “make the town look better than ever. I don’t find cars parked on grass, overflowing trash cans, and graffiti a nice-looking place to live.”

To such criticism, Furman said, “I know from Pete’s perspective, he would like to live more in a gated-type community where you tell everybody what you should be doing and what you shouldn’t be doing. … I find our residents don’t want that type of code enforcement. They want things to look nice but they’re not interested in the heavy hand of government. And so I try to find that balance.”

She added: “Pete has definitely been my biggest critic. I hear it all the time. But I also hear that we’re doing a great job and that the town looks terrific.”

The candidates also disagreed whether discourtesy and incivility have intruded into Town government.

“I don’t think we have a civility issue,” Furman said. “I was kind of taken by surprise by that because I think our Council meetings have been quite polite. … I don’t see what Pete sees.”

In reply, Fosselman said, “Absolutely, we do” have a civility problem. “People are dismissed, they’re disregarded, they are cut off, interrupted — that’s apparent if you watch videos of Council meetings,” where the mayor presides.

“It has to do with the way people are treated,” Fosselman added, “and there are a number of people who can attest to being treated very poorly, either at Council meetings, [in] making calls to the Town staff, or in any number of situations where they’ve requested things and have been dismissed. And that’s not something I can make up.” He said he often heard such complaints when he went door-to-door early in the year, informing Townspeople he was planning another run for mayor.

Furman disputed Fosselman’s complaints.

“When Pete says, ‘I’m not making this stuff up,’ he is making this stuff up because I have not received those calls. People are not treated that way,” she said and cited complaints about graffiti on a county bridge in town.

“I have seen the graffiti on the bridge and it has been reported to the county, and the county will get to it. We are in a pandemic where it is difficult to get people out to do things right now. And that’s one thing that Pete doesn’t have, is patience. He doesn’t understand when other people have other work that they have to do. And it will get done. But I, for so long, I’ve heard ‘a lot of people are saying.’ Well those people are not saying it to me. And I have suggested that he refer them to me and he never does. Those people don’t exist.”

The debate was moderated by Sean McMullen, a former Town Council member who posed questions based on queries townspeople submitted in advance. On most questions, the candidates were permitted no more than 60 seconds to reply.

Not counting Town staff and others associated with producing the debate, about 65 people logged in to follow the encounter on Zoom. The mayoral debate was followed by a virtual forum for the three candidates for two seats on Kensington’s Town Council. They are: Brigid Hill-Zayat, a one-term incumbent; Nate Engle, a newcomer to Town politics, and Jon Gerson, who served a term on the council in the 1980s.

The elected positions are part-time and non-partisan. Kensington’s day-to-day activities are overseen by a town manager and his staff.

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Who Signed the Anti-Austin Letter – and Who Did Not

By Adam Pagnucco.

It’s common for elected officials to endorse candidates in school board races. What’s decidedly uncommon is for elected officials to issue anti-endorsements – in essence, telling voters NOT to vote for a candidate. But that’s what just happened minutes ago, as a collection of MoCo county officials and state lawmakers sent an open letter opposing a school board candidate to Maryland Matters.

Folks, just when you think you have seen it all – you have not!

The target of these elected officials is first-time school board candidate Stephen Austin, who is running for an open at-large seat. Austin says on his website that he is “committed to keeping kids in neighborhood schools” and has opposed MCPS’s school boundary analysis. Representatives of One Montgomery attacked him in Maryland Matters for allegedly “fomenting fear and division” over school boundaries, an accusation he has denied. A large group of elected officials are now urging voters to reject him, writing, “There are good choices to represent all perspectives in the upcoming race for Board of Education, At-Large. Stephen Austin is not one of them.”

Many elected officials have signed the letter but many have not. Here is the list of signers and non-signers.

County Officials Who Signed

County Executive Marc Elrich
Council Member Gabe Albornoz (At-Large)
Council Member Tom Hucker (D-5)
Council Member Will Jawando (At-Large)
Council Member Nancy Navarro (D-4)
Council Member Craig Rice (D-2)
Council Member Hans Riemer (At-Large)

County Officials Who Did Not Sign

Council Member Andrew Friedson (D-1)
Council Member Evan Glass (At-Large) – Note: Glass endorsed Lynne Harris.
Council Member Sidney Katz (D-3) – Note: Katz endorsed Sunil Dasgupta.

State Senators Who Signed

Senator Cheryl Kagan (D-17)
Senator Nancy King (D-39)
Senator Ben Kramer (D-19)
Senator Will Smith (D-20)

State Senators Who Did Not Sign

Senator Brian Feldman (D-15)
Senator Susan Lee (D-16)
Senator Jeff Waldstreicher (D-18)
Senator Craig Zucker (D-14)

Delegates Who Signed

Delegate Lorig Charkoudian (D-20)
Delegate Charlotte Crutchfield (D-19)
Delegate Bonnie Cullison (D-19)
Delegate Lesley Lopez (D-39)
Delegate Eric Luedtke (D-14)
Delegate David Moon (D-20)
Delegate Kirill Reznik (D-39)
Delegate Vaughn Stewart (D-19)

Delegates Who Did Not Sign

Delegate Gabe Acevero (D-39)
Delegate Kumar Barve (D-17)
Delegate Al Carr (D-18)
Delegate Kathleen Dumais (D-15)
Delegate David Fraser-Hidalgo (D-15)
Delegate Jim Gilchrist (D-17)
Delegate Anne Kaiser (D-14)
Delegate Ariana Kelly (D-16)
Delegate Marc Korman (D-16)
Delegate Sara Love (D-16)
Delegate Julie Palakovich Carr (D-17)
Delegate Lily Qi (D-15)
Delegate Pam Queen (D-14)
Delegate Emily Shetty (D-18)
Delegate Jared Solomon (D-18)
Delegate Jheanelle Wilkins (D-20)

It’s noteworthy that not a single state legislator from Districts 15, 16 and 18 signed the letter. These districts are home to the wealthiest neighborhoods in the county and have the highest achieving high school clusters. Austin lives in Bethesda and has raised most of his campaign funds from these areas. (More to come on that tomorrow.) These facts are probably not aligned in coincidence.

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Campaign Finance Reports, School Board Primary

By Adam Pagnucco.

The second round of campaign finance reports covering contributions and expenditures in the school board race were due yesterday. They cover campaign activity through May 17 and are the last reports to be released before the June 2 primary. The table below presents cumulative totals combining the first and second reports for all candidates. Those with data marked “NA” filed affidavits stating that their campaigns did not collect or spend more than $1,000 for the reporting period.

In the at-large race, Jay Guan is the leader with $27,443 raised, followed by Sunil Dasgupta ($22,760) and Stephen Austin ($20,730). Lynne Harris, who was endorsed by the Washington Post, ranks 6th with $7,456 raised. The district races were quiet.

These are small amounts of money compared to county executive, county council and state legislative races, but Guan, Dasgupta and Austin have all done pretty well for school board candidates. Here is how their totals compare to other (relatively) well-financed school board candidacies in the primary over the last decade.

So far, the single largest expenditure by any candidate in the race is Guan’s mailing of a postcard in early May, which cost $13,861. However, the Maryland State Education Association, which has endorsed Dasgupta, sent out a glossy mailer on his behalf shortly afterwards. That mailer’s cost is not available from campaign finance records but almost certainly exceeds the cost of Guan’s mailer.

Facebook’s political ad tracker shows that Dasgupta has spent more money on Facebook ads than the rest of the at-large field combined.

So far, the most expensive Facebook ad in the race has been this one by Dasgupta which promoted some of his endorsements.

The second most expensive Facebook ad was this one by Austin attacking Harris. Austin may be calculating that if he can knock out Harris, he will enter an insider vs outsider general election against Dasgupta.

Combining his own spending with the independent expenditures of the teachers union, Dasgupta may be running the most vigorous campaign overall. Harris’s money problems are impeding her ability to publicize the Post endorsement, which should worry her supporters. Austin has done well to keep pace financially with Dasgupta despite the latter’s endorsement by multiple unions and numerous elected officials. The big question is what Austin plans to do with his $13,048 cash balance. If he had spent it on Facebook ads, he would easily have outspent Dasgupta. Either he is saving it for a last push or he is banking some money for the general election.

Following is a list of the most prominent contributors to Austin, Dasgupta, Guan and Harris.

Stephen Austin
Coalition for Better Montgomery PAC: $3,000 (Note: this contribution was criticized by One Montgomery, which earned a response from Austin.)
Alexander Bush, Chairman, Montgomery County Republican Party: $500
Pete Fosselman, Former Mayor, Town of Kensington: $100

Sunil Dasgupta
MSEA Fund for Children and Public Education: $3,500 (Note: this is the state teachers union. The county teachers union has endorsed Dasgupta.)
SEIU Local 500: $1,000 (Note: this union represents support staff in MCPS and has endorsed Dasgupta.)
Sidney Katz, Montgomery County Council Member: $250
Eric Luedtke, Delegate: $250
Jeffrey Slavin, Mayor, Town of Somerset: $250
Casey Anderson, Chair, Planning Board: $100
Aruna Miller, Former Delegate: $100
Mark Pierzchala, Council Member, City of Rockville: $100
Steve Silverman, Former Montgomery County Council Member: $100
Vaughn Stewart, Delegate: $100
Partap Verma, Planning Board Member: $100
Neil Harris, Council Member, City of Gaithersburg: $50
Dan Reed, Author, Just Up the Pike: $50
Hans Riemer, Montgomery County Council Member: $50

Jay Guan
Lily Qi, Delegate: $500

Lynne Harris
Diana Conway, President, Women’s Democratic Club: $300
Marc Elrich, Montgomery County Executive: $100
Tom Hucker, Montgomery County Council Member: $100
Jill Ortman-Fouse, Former School Board Member: $100
Al Carr, Delegate: $50

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Council Urges Hogan, Franchot to Extend Alcohol Carryout and Delivery

By Adam Pagnucco.

In a letter spearheaded by Council Member Andrew Friedson, the entire county council is urging Governor Larry Hogan and Comptroller Peter Franchot to extend the ability of restaurants to sell alcohol by carryout and delivery after the current state of emergency is lifted. Many restaurants are hanging on for dear life and news that the state’s unemployment rate has tripled only underscores how tough it will be to sustain consumer spending. We reprint the council’s letter below.

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Unemployment Triples in Maryland

By Adam Pagnucco.

Today, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released its preliminary state-level unemployment numbers for April. In March, BLS estimated Maryland’s unemployment rate at 3.3%. In April, BLS estimated Maryland’s unemployment rate at 9.9%.

That’s a tripling of Maryland’s unemployment rate in one month.

Here are BLS’s estimates for the components of the unemployment rate in March and April, as well as in 2019.

Perhaps the most interesting estimate from BLS is that of the 415,359 people who lost their jobs in April, more than half (220,230) left the labor force entirely. That means they are without jobs and, according to BLS, not currently seeking work. In contrast, BLS defines unemployed people as having “no employment during the reference week, were available for work, except for temporary illness, and had made specific efforts to find employment sometime during the 4-week period ending with the reference week.”

As high as the April unemployment rate may be, it’s bound to be lower than the state’s unemployment rate today. That’s because BLS’s reference week for a monthly estimate is the week containing the 12th day of the month. State data indicates that 296,842 unemployment insurance claims were filed in the four weeks ending on April 11 while 310,946 more were filed in the five weeks thereafter. That means that May’s unemployment rate will be significantly higher than April’s.

Maryland’s labor force is not the only casualty of the COVID-19 crisis. BLS reports that D.C.’s unemployment rate rose from 6.0% in March to 11.1% in April. In Virginia, unemployment rose from 3.3% in March to 10.6% in April. Nationally, unemployment rose from 4.4% in March to 14.7% in April. The bright side for Maryland, D.C. and Virginia is that they all have unemployment rates significantly below most other states.

To put April’s unemployment rate in perspective, I pulled Maryland’s annual unemployment rate numbers from 1976 to 2019 and charted them below. Unemployment varies with the business cycle and peaked in 8.3% in 1982, 6.8% in 1992 and 7.7% in 2010. In each of those instances, the unemployment rate took three years to reach its peak. This time, the acceleration of unemployment took one month. What will next month look like?

BLS has not yet released county-level data for April. When it’s available, I will post it.

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