Carroll County Times
Carroll County

Carroll voters switch to Republican to have a voice in the primary

Every person Melissa Madison spoke to, everywhere she went, she had a question on her lips: "Are you a registered voter?"

Then, the New Windsor resident would delve deeper with further inquiries. What district did the prospective voter live in? Did they realize Democrats and independents didn't have a say in which candidates they'd see on the November ballot?

Madison is one of nearly 1,300 Carroll residents who changed from Democrat or unaffiliated, Libertarian or another party affiliation to Republican since Jan. 1 — a trend more robust this year than in the past.

Whether it's a yearning for change in public education funding, frustration with incumbent candidates or the desire to have a say in local politics, some Carroll Democrats, independents and others have switched parties to vote in the June 24 primary.

"You can call me a RINO, you can call me anything you want to," said Madison, "but you can't call me voiceless anymore."

As of Jan. 30, Carroll was 29 percent Democrat and nearly 51 percent Republican.

That changed only slightly, despite the roughly 1,300 changes to the Republican Party from Jan. 1. As of June 3 — the last day to change party affiliation before the primary — Carroll is nearly 28 percent Democrat and 52 percent Republican.

But generally, primary elections draw a meager showing of voters to the polls. In 2010, no Republican winner in the county commissioner primary received as many as 2,000 votes.

The fact that Democrats have switched to Republicans is frustrating because this swap doesn't generally mean a change in ideology, according to Larry Helminiak, Carroll County Republican Central Committee chairman.

"I don't think anybody that switched in the last month is really in agreement with the Republican conservative philosophy," he said. "They're unhappy with it, and they want to try and influence the election by voting for the more progressive candidate."

A sparse Democratic field

It's no secret: There are more conservatives in Carroll than liberals. The data and the ballots show just as much.

All Democrats in the state Senate or House of Delegates races are essentially running unopposed in the primary, guaranteed a spot in November's general election. Only District 1 and District 3 have a Democratic candidate running for Carroll County Board of Commissioners, and there is no challenger in either case.

The June 24 election is a closed primary, meaning Republicans have to vote for Republicans and Democrats have to vote for Democrats. And the votes determine the candidates who will be each party's nominee in the November election.

"It's pretty much an understood fact that most of the decisions are made in the primary election in Carroll County on the local basis," said Don West, a Carroll County Democratic Central Committee member.

And the lack of multiple Democratic contenders in local races likely drove more voters than normal to switch their party affiliation to Republican by the June 3 deadline, according to Gail Carter, Carroll Board of Elections director.

While West is not actively encouraging Democrats to do so, he understands why they are: "It's disappointing that there are not a full complement of [Democratic] candidates," he said.

Over the past four years, the county's Democratic Central Committee didn't do its job, West said, as it couldn't find candidates to run in every race. But it's just not easy, he said.

"It's a Catch-22 in a lot of ways, but the mentality or the mindset for a lot of people is you can't get elected in Carroll County as a Democrat," he said. "So it's very challenging, and so a lot of people weigh their options and think it's just not worth the time, the energy and the resources."


The people's issues

Kate Davenport, former Spring Garden Elementary PTA president, switched to Republican in May just to vote in the primary. Then, she'll be switching back.

It was a brief change she needed to make, she said. She was tired of watching the PTA attempt to raise money for various projects, such as buying smart boards and tablets and printers.

"Our role is to step forward and put money in where the funding for Board of Education falls short," said Davenport, of Hampstead. "The gaps keep getting bigger and bigger."

And quality teachers are leaving the county for more competitive salaries elsewhere, Davenport said.

Carroll County has the fourth-lowest average teacher salary in the state at $56,670 and the lowest starting salary for entry-level teachers with a bachelor's degree at $40,400, according to a Maryland State Department of Education 2013-2014 analysis.

Quality teachers come at a fair price, said Madison, a Northwest Middle School teacher. And these salaries are unfair, which is one of the reasons she switched her party affiliation to Republican and encouraged others to do so as well.

The teacher's union has endorsed a list of commissioner candidates: all Republican, all pro-public education, according to Ted Payne, Carroll County Education Association president.

While switching party affiliations to Republican has been discussed among teachers, Payne said, it's also been talked about within the Carroll community at large.

"There's enough dissatisfaction with the direction the county has been going the last few years that people are getting tired of it," he said. "They're tired of the same rhetoric."

The current board of commissioners isn't representing the people as a whole, said Brooke Hagerty, of Taneytown. So, the independent switched to Republican in February.

"When you are in office, you need to represent everyone and not just the people that think like you," she said. "You can't be a one-way thinker. You have to decide based on what is the good for everyone."

And Dennis O'Keefe said he wished the commissioners spent more time on hard-hitting local issues, rather than discussing legislation restricting drone usage in Carroll and fighting a lawsuit regarding prayer at county government meetings.

The Westminster resident switched from Democrat to Republican to have a say in the race, the first time he's changed his party affiliation in 40 years. On June 25, he said he'll switch right back.

Others, such as Jason Officer, are concerned with bringing jobs and businesses into the county. He wanted to vote for the candidates he thought could do so. And the former Democrat wanted to have a voice in the election.

"I agree with what Republican candidates are saying and, you know, it was hard because I like what certain Democratic candidates are saying on the state level ticket," the Westminster resident said. "I'm OK with giving away my vote for governor because my local candidates affect me more than what the governor is going to do."

So, he said, he'll probably stay a registered Republican, as will others, like Tim Schneider. The Mount Airy resident was discussing how to improve Carroll County with a group of friends. They realized the Democrats didn't have anyone to vote for in District 4, so they made the party switch.

"There's nothing that I'm going to do as a single voter in Maryland to influence national politics," he said, "so the best I can do is to influence what happens locally."

But Carroll County is conservative for a reason, Helminiak, of the Carroll County Republican Central Committee, said. It's what the majority of the people want.

"The Democrats totally control the state and totally control the federal government," he said. "Now they're trying to control one of the reddest counties in the United States, and this is their attempt to do it."