Md. should open primaries to independent voters

Spring has sprung. Flowers are blooming, birds are chirping, and another political primary season is upon us. Televised political ads are rampant, with politicians asking for our support. As a public speaker at civic and industry events throughout Maryland, I’m an advocate for the state in general and Baltimore in particular. I care deeply about the issues affecting my state and city. There’s one problem, however, in my ability to effect solutions: As a registered independent, I can’t vote in primary elections.

Political primaries are a big deal, particularly in states like Maryland that heavily favor one party. In many races in our state, the candidate who wins the primary often is the de facto winner of the general election since there is no candidate from the opposing party to challenge them.

The disenfranchisement of independent voters is no accident and is done by excluding us from primaries and by gerrymandering districts to dilute and, in some cases, eliminate our enfranchisement. Former Gov. Martin O’Malley’s recent admission that he intentionally and maliciously gerrymandered congressional districts in the state of Maryland to favor Democrats says it all. The damage done by Mr. O’Malley can’t be undone by his political deathbed confession: that he was forced to do it because Republicans were doing it too.

I now tell my kids that if they see another kid do something bad, they can do it too because the governor says it’s OK. The scandal is that Mr. O’Malley’s gerrymandering was legal, although it is now under review by the U.S. Supreme Court as is another case of Republican gerrymandering in Wisconsin.

Throughout my life, I have proudly and consistently asserted my First Amendment right not to associate, starting as a mere pup at Cornell University, when I refused to join a fraternity (other than Lambda Lambda Lambda, aka library, library, library). Sometimes I vote for Democrats, sometimes for Republicans. I’ve even considered registering as one or the other at various points in my life, and if I ever run for political office I probably will do so. For now, however, I’m happy getting run over by both sides. Can I be both a Democrat and a Republican, vote in both primaries and maybe run for office under both banners? (Historical side note: Dwight D. Eisenhower considered this in 1952 as a general.) As a political independent, I not only bound about in the political wilderness, I’m obviously easily confused too.

The late Sen. Arlen Spector once said that the problem with independents is that they don’t vote. Well, I would’ve assured him that I and at least three other independents in the state of Maryland would vote in primaries if given the right — a thought that I know rattles the “bases” of both parties who believe they have the God-given right to be the only ones to vote in primaries. If you lose a few winks of sleep by your power being diluted by 0.01 percent, well then, I can’t help you.

According to openprimaries.org, Maryland is the second most expensive state for primaries, costing taxpayers nearly $28 million a year. And taxpayers who are independent voters foot part of this bill for the privilege of not being able to vote. Taxation without representation? The state may have a compelling interest in free and fair elections, but the primaries are not free nor are they fair.

There are two solutions to this problem. The first is to hold an “open” primary that allows anyone to vote and pits the top two candidates regardless of party against each other in the general election. The second is to end gerrymandering by creating an independent commission that includes actual independents to redistrict the entire state based largely on geographic proximity and not on political persuasion.

Although I’m hoping the Supreme Court mandates this in its upcoming Maryland and Wisconsin gerrymandering decisions this summer, there’s a much more fundamental reason for it to happen. By exercising one constitutional right (freedom of association), you should not be forced to sacrifice another (the right to vote).

Let me vote.

Spencer Levy (Twitter: @SpencerGLevy) is the national head of research at CBRE, the world’s largest commercial real estate servicing firm; he is based in Baltimore.

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