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Md. GOP's choice: Reform or lose

As the Maryland Republican Party considers reforming its nominating process to include unaffiliated voters, it seems there are as many opinions on the matter as there are Republicans. Opponents of change have the rhetoric, but advocates have the facts on their side.

Republicans have not re-elected a governor in Maryland in over 50 years and have not controlled the legislature in anyone's lifetime. Maintaining the status quo and waiting for the Democrats to lose is not a winning strategy.

Voter dissatisfaction with both major parties has led to an explosion in the ranks of unaffiliated voters. These voters support candidates based on their principles and their policies, not their party. At some point they will demand, and should receive, participation rights in both party's primaries, or rightfully call for an end to taxpayer-funded, closed nominating elections. The Maryland Republican Party should be prepared for this eventuality and should embrace it.

Or the party can do nothing. But that won't change the fact that based on current voter registration trends, Maryland Republicans will be relegated to "trinority" status before long. Statistics from the Maryland Board of Elections indicate that the ranks of unaffiliated voters have been gaining on the GOP for more than a decade, and the trend is accelerating. So far this year, unaffiliated voters are gaining on the Republicans at a rate greater than 3,000 a month. If that keeps up, the GOP will be the state's third-largest political group on or about Oct. 15, 2021.

Still, there are reasons to be optimistic. In the Northeast, states with large percentages of unaffiliated voters consistently elect Republicans to statewide office and to majorities in the legislature. Until the last election cycle, Vermont, Rhode Island and Connecticut consistently elected Republican governors. New Hampshire and Maine each have Republican U.S. Senators and GOP majorities in the legislature. New York has a GOP controlled state senate. New Jersey has a Republican governor. Pennsylvania Republicans have the House, Senate and governor's mansion and a U.S. senator. Until 2010, Republicans held Delaware's at-large congressional seat for 18 years. And until 2006, four different Republican governors controlled Massachusetts for 16 straight years.

Opening the primary to unaffiliated voters doesn't mean losing control of the nomination process. The key is for the party to begin endorsing candidates in the primary. Doing so would help Republicans recruit better candidates who would have the promise of institutional backing. This endorsement should be the product of a convention, similar to the ones conducted in Virginia, which host nearly 10,000 delegates. It would take time for Maryland Republicans to attract so many to a convention, but they could begin with central committees and their chartered club members participating. Endorsements would give registered Republicans, clubs and the central committees more authority, relevance, value and input in the outcome of the nomination, and the process would expand the grassroots of the party.

Increasing participation by voters and the grassroots in the nominating process will improve outcomes in the general elections, but that reform is not sufficient. Ballot access in a Republican primary is not a constitutional right, but we have treated it like one, requiring no greater qualification than registering with the Board of Elections and paying a filing fee.

Dozens of state parties require signatures to gain access to the nominating ballot. This serves to separate the serious candidates from the dreamers. These state parties believe their registered voters have the right and a reason to determine ballot access. More importantly, requiring candidates to gather signatures only makes them more credible and electable in the long run and engages those registered Republicans who generally vote in presidential years but not gubernatorial years.

Candidates continue to lose elections for state Senate and House seats by razor-thin margins because voters stayed home when their votes would have had the greatest impact. Increasing turnout by as little as 5 percent, by engaging these voters, could win enough Senate seats to sustain a filibuster, for starters.

These reforms will increase voter turnout, strengthen campaigns, increase club membership, empower central committees and the grassroots, engage voters, hold incumbents accountable, and consistently win more elections. Simply maintaining the status quo will not.

Don Murphy is a Republican and a former member of the House of Delegates from Baltimore County. His email is donmurphypa@aol.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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