Presidential elections are civic rituals worthy of the exhortation Bob Schieffer, the moderator of the final debate between Barack Obama (D) and Mitt Romney (R), says his mom used to make: "Go vote. It makes you feel big and strong." But who should be at the helm of the giant ship of the U.S. government is but the first of many sets of choices Baltimore City voters will face on Election Day. Their heft and strength will also be felt in deciding who will be their U.S. Senator, their members of the U.S. House of Representatives in three districts, and their state judges at three levels. Plus, perhaps most daunting, they are being asked whether to back or oppose seven state-wide ballot issues and 13 questions put forth by City Hall, eight of which seek to borrow a total of $100 million for critical-sounding issues and popular institutions.

The sample ballots voters should have already received from their mail carriers lay out precisely what will beam up from the computer screens at ballot boxes on Election Day. A bit more substance, though, can serve as a helpful guide. So here goes: City Paper's cheat sheet on what Baltimore City voters will face at their polling places on Nov. 6-or earlier, for those heading out to the city's five early-voting sites between Oct. 27 and Nov. 1.

President/Vice President

The probability that Maryland will go for Obama and his running mate, Joe Biden, stands at 100 percent, according to Nate Silver's wonky, poll-aggregating FiveThirtyEight blog at The New York Times, so Romney and vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan aren't looking to Free State Republicans to get them anywhere. For those so inclined, then, the luxury of wasting votes on the quixotic tickets put up by the Libertarians and Greens is available, free of consequence. The former consists of Gary Johnson and James Gray, and the latter of Jill Stein and Cheri Honkala. Johnson, the former Republican governor of New Mexico, is anti-war, anti-taxes, pro-civil liberties, and seriously concerned about an imbalance of power in the hands of the White House. Stein, a Harvard-educated physician and environmental-health advocate from Massachusetts, espouses a panoply of progressive positions that lefties may find lacking in Obama. Protest voters can rest easy that neither is a wacko slouch.

U.S. Senator

Incumbent Sen. Ben Cardin (D) is facing his first re-election, seeking to continue a storied political career that includes lengthy stints in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Maryland House of Delegates. His major-party challenger is Daniel John Bongino (R), a staunchly anti-government former U.S. Secret Service agent who is endorsed by Sarah Palin and has pledged to oppose any tax increases. The Libertarians have Harvard-educated astronomer/astrophysicist and Islam expert Dean Ahmad, whose history with Maryland's Libertarian Party goes back as far as Cardin has been in elected office. Unaffiliated candidate S. Rob Sobhani is an international businessman whose five-point platform prescribes measurable, monetary investments in Maryland's future, and, if elected, he promises not to run again if they aren't met. A Washington Post poll conducted in mid-October has Cardin with 53 percent, to Bongino's 22 percent, Sobhani's 14 percent, and Ahmad's two percent.

U.S. Representative

2nd District

C.A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger (D) is seeking his fifth re-election to the House since first winning in 2002, after having served two terms as Baltimore County Executive. His Republican opponent, state Sen. Nancy Jacobs, currently represents a district spanning Harford and Cecil counties, and has been in the General Assembly since 1994. The Libertarian, Leo Wayne Dymoski, is a Dundalk native who serves as a Maryland Parole Commission hearing officer, but the Army veteran with a master's degree in urban planning also had lengthy stints as a trial attorney and with the Housing Authority of Baltimore City.

3rd District

John Sarbanes (D), first elected to Congress in 2006, is a son of late U.S. Sen. Paul Sarbanes, who held the seat back in the early 1970s. With his Princeton/Harvard Law education and a few terms under his belt, he'd be hard to beat. Trying to do so is Eric Delano Knowles (R), a Tea Party devotee who ran for Maryland Governor as the Constitution Party candidate in 2010, and Libertarian Paul W. Drgos Jr., a computer programmer from Pasadena who used to be a Republican.

7th District

Elijah Cummings (D) has had plenty of time to become a local institution since first winning this seat in 1996, in a special election to fill a seat left vacant when Kweisi Mfume became president of the NAACP. That's not stopping Republican Frank C. Mirabile and Libertarian Ronald M. Owens-Bey from trying to beat him, though. Mirabile, a landscape architect from Catonsville, tried before in 2010, and he's running again on an anti-tax, pro-life, get-government-off-our-backs platform. Owens-Bey, a social worker, files for office pretty much every election-including against Cummings two years ago. Though he's run under the Democrat, Republican, and Populist banners in the past, Owens-Bey's been a steady Libertarian now for several election cycles.


Baltimore City Circuit Court

This year's six sitting judges campaign together, and, as usual, no one's opposing them. They have to run in the next election after their appointments or after serving 16 years on the bench. Electing judges is controversial, since it means they have to raise campaign funds-almost exclusively from lawyers who may appear before them, creating something uncomfortably close to an appearance of a conflict of interest-but the Sitting Judges Committee is ostensibly fashioned to buffer the robe-wearing jurists from the dust and dirt of actual electoral politics. Of this year's crew, five-Kendra Y. Ausby, Jeannie J. Hong, Charles J. Peters, Michael W. Reed, and Yolanda A. Tanner-were appointed by Gov. Martin O'Malley since 2010, while David W. Young was appointed in 1996 by then-Gov. Parris Glendening.

Maryland Court of Special Appeals

Stuart R. Berger and Shirley M. Watts are also both running unopposed. Both served as Baltimore City Circuit Court judges prior their appointments to the intermediary appellate court since 2011. Berger had been in private practice before his 1998 Circuit Court appointment, working for some of the Baltimore area's blue-chip firms. Watts' Circuit Court appointment came in 2002 and before that she had been a federal administrative law judge for the Social Security Administration, a federal public defender, and a Baltimore City prosecutor.

Maryland Court of Appeals

Chief judge Robert M. Bell first got the title in 1996, by Glendening's appointment, after having served five years on the state's highest court. Before that, he'd been on the Court of Special Appeals since 1984. There's more before that-Baltimore City Circuit and District courts-but does it really matter? Bottom line, he's been a judge in Maryland of one sort or another for nearly two generations. That he graces the ballot, unopposed, serves mainly as a reminder that he's still the top dog of the state's judiciary.

State Ballot Questions


Questions 1 and 2: Orphan's Court judges qualifications

Question 1 requires that judges of the Prince George's County Orphan's Court-which handles probate and guardianship matters-be attorneys and members of the Maryland bar in good standing. Question 2 requires the same of judges of the Baltimore County Orphan's Court. Two years ago, Maryland voters approved this same ballot question for Baltimore City. On the same day, Baltimore City voters elected a non-lawyer, Laudette Ramona Moore Baker, to the three-judge bench of the city's Orphan's Court. To settle the contradictory outcomes at the polls, O'Malley didn't seat Baker and instead appointed a lawyer, Michele Loewenthal. Now Prince George's and Baltimore counties seek to join Baltimore City in adding the qualification. At the very least, requiring that jurists handling rather arcane matters of law be lawyers can do no harm-other than to the likes of Baker, who ended up not getting the taxpayer-funded job she wanted.

BOTTOM LINE: Vote "For" the amendment if you want it these judges to be lawyers or vote "Against" it if you think the proposed qualification is unnecessary.


Question 3: Removing elected officials for criminal convictions

Today, under the Maryland Constitution, when a sitting Maryland politician accused of a crime is found guilty or pleads guilty or no contest, he or she remains in office until sentencing, which may not take place until months later. Qualifying crimes include felonies and misdemeanors related to the official's public duties or moral turpitude that carry possible prison terms. This situation played out twice recently-in the cases of Baltimore City Mayor Sheila Dixon (D), who pleaded guilty to state theft and perjury in 2010, and Prince George's County Councilwoman Leslie Johnson (D), who pleaded guilty to federal obstruction-of-justice charges in 2011, in connection with a probe that resulted in her husband, county executive Jack Johnson, pleading guilty-after his term in office expired-to an extortion conspiracy related to his official duties. Dixon and Leslie Johnson both stayed in office until they were sentenced, rather than when they entered their pleas. Under the proposed amendment, both would have had to leave when they entered their guilty pleas. The idea here is, if they're guilty, the sooner they go, the better.

BOTTOM LINE: Vote "For" the amendment if you believe convicted politicians should leave office immediately or vote "Against" it if you think they should be able to stay in office until they are sentenced.


Question 4: DREAM Act

The proposal that some undocumented immigrants may be granted in-state tuition at Maryland colleges and universities-the DREAM Act, which stands for Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors-has sparked outrage among opponents who believe that it would attract a flood of illegal immigrants to Maryland, resulting in mounting costs, and that it extends a break to those who are in this country illegally. The qualifying requirements that would need to be met are highly restrictive, however, and if it passes, the foregone tuition revenues are estimated at about $3.5 million annually by 2016-a relatively small amount, given the likely outcome of more tax-paying Marylanders with higher educations, higher incomes, and lower likelihoods of committing crimes that would result in prison. Along the way, as the students gather diplomas, they may find available ways to straighten out their immigration status.

As it stands, undocumented immigrants who are Maryland residents do not qualify for in-state tuition, no matter how long they've resided in the Free State. To remove this barrier, the act would establish restrictive requirements, so that only children with Maryland high school diplomas, who come from families that have long-running, tax-paying terms of residence in Maryland would qualify. The checklist for qualifying is long and detailed, assuring that, should the act attract new families of undocumented immigrants to Maryland, they'd only receive this benefit after having been here-working and paying taxes while their kids successfully complete at least three years of in-state high school-for a good while. The potential per-family financial impact is large; at University of Maryland, for instance, out-of-state students currently pay about $27,000, while in-state students pay about $8,900.

Supporters of the DREAM Act in Maryland-and there are many, according to a mid-October Washington Post poll that found 59 percent in favor to 35 percent opposed-extol its potential economic benefits and its fundamental appeal to fairness in society. If it passes, Maryland would be the first state to approve such a ballot measure, though 13 others have passed similar legislation. For years, Congress has been sitting on a proposed federal DREAM Act, which was first introduced in 2001.

BOTTOM LINE: Vote "For" the law if you want in-state tuition to be available for qualified undocumented immigrants or vote "Against" it if you don't.


Question 5: Maryland's new Congressional district map

The new Congressional district boundaries drawn by O'Malley and passed by the General Assembly, as required after every U.S. Census count, give Democrats an upper hand in the traditionally Republican 6th District. The new districts were challenged and upheld in Maryland federal court, whose decision was affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court, but have the distinction of being among the least geographically compact in the nation, according to a recent study by Azavea, a geospatial-analysis firm. The analysis found that four of Maryland's eight districts were among the nation's 25 most spread-out districts; aside from Maryland, only Texas and North Carolina had as many districts in the list. Thus, opponents of the new map have plenty of justification for leveling "gerrymandering" charges-a 200-year-old word first used to describe a district redrawn for political advantage in such a way that it resembled a salamander.