Next year will mark the centennial of primary elections in Maryland, and the longstanding arrangement has been a boon for Baltimore City's Democrats. Their voter-registration dominance means the Democrats' primaries have for generations effectively decided the city's leadership, relegating general elections to sparsely polled processes to ratify the primary victors. Only Democrats have served as mayor since 1967, and only Democrats have sat on City Council for nearly 70 years.
In effect, much of Baltimore City's electorate has become disenfranchised by closed Democratic primaries, in which only Democrats can vote. The phenomenon primarily is due to self-disenfranchisement: Democrats who don't vote in their primary. This is often chalked up to apathy, but, whatever the cause, it happens in great numbers. In September's primary election, for example, three times as many registered Democrats didn't vote as did. The city's 77,643 registered non-Democrats, though, simply can't participate; they've presumably considered their options—either become Democrats, regardless of their beliefs, or be irrelevant as city voters—and decided to stick with their principles.
In all, 295,260 registered city voters, nearly 80 percent of the electorate, did not or could not participate in September's Democratic primary. If that's a meaningful way to measure the pulse of the city's democracy today, then its heart is barely pumping.
The numbers from September are bleak. The victor in the mayor's race, appointed incumbent Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, got 38,829 votes, about 8 percent of the city's voting-age public and about 6 percent of its 620,961 residents. Combined Democratic participation barely broke 18 percent in three adjacent City Council districts—the 1st, 10th, and 11th—that include the city's prosperous waterfront communities. Votes from a 10th of the registered Democrats in the 10th District were sufficient to hand victory to longtime incumbent Edward Reisinger in a three-way race. In the west side's 9th District, appointed incumbent William "Pete" Welch won with 1,721 votes, 7.5 percent of the district's Democratic electorate.
For voters offended by this picture, the Nov. 8 general election is their opportunity to change it. All 371,421 registered city voters can now go to the polls and exercise their right to vote. History shows that the general election likely won't come anywhere near living up to its potential—in the 2007 city elections, for example, less than half as many people voted in the general as did in the primary—but there's always hope.
The Democrats who won in the primary will be on the ballot, but so will 10 Republicans, four Libertarians, and two Green Party candidates. (The names of eight write-in candidates—two Republicans for mayor, a Democrat for City Council president, and four Democrats and an independent running to be City Councilmembers. as of press time—won't be on the ballot, but if voters type the candidates' names into the voting machine, the votes will be counted in their favor ["The Write-In Stuff," Mobtown Beat, Oct. 12]). Their parties have voter-registration numbers that pale by orders of magnitude next to the Democrats; the city is home to 32,302 Republican, 743 Libertarian, and 1,393 Green Party registered voters. But 41,750 voters aren't affiliated with any party, and another 1,455 are registered as members of other parties—and surely some of the 293,778 registered Democrats don't like what they see and might break ranks.
So what do these 16 non-Democrats on the ballot have to offer? First and foremost, they say, independence from what they call this town's "Democratic machine." With rare exceptions, they argue, Democrats toe lines drawn by their higher-ups and don't rock the boat, opting to go along to get along so as to enhance their political fortunes. By voting in someone who hasn't come up under the Democrats' farm-league system, they say, the city can gain leadership that will be free to speak truth to power. For voters of all stripes who are sick and tired of the same old same old, these candidates say it's time for a change—and that, more than anything else, is what they claim to offer.