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Want better candidates? Perhaps primary reform is needed

Want better candidates? Perhaps primary reform is needed
(Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Politics are as divisive as ever in our country right now, particularly when it comes to our two major party choices for the next president of the United States. I realize that might be the understatement of the year.

No matter who wins on Nov. 8, expect the polarization among party lines to get even greater, especially if the loser does not accept defeat graciously, as one of the two has made clear he will not.

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How did we get here? Ideally, we would have candidates who would be uniting our country and not dividing it. Part of the problem is the number of voters who don't participate in the primary process, either by choice or because of decisions by political parties that shut out unaffiliated voters.

Back in the spring, Pew Research Group reported that more than 57.6 million people voted in Republican and Democratic presidential primaries, about 28.5 percent of eligible voters. That was close to the record participation level in 2008, when 30.4 percent of registered voters cast a ballot in the primaries.

Think about that for a second. Our record level of voting in a primary election is less than a third of the electorate. The only other place 30 percent is considered good is when you're talking batting averages in baseball.

What this means is there is really only a small percentage of the general public that is choosing who should run our country, states, counties and cities. As we've seen time and time again in Carroll County, where registered Republicans outnumber Democrats 2-1, the primary is the "real" election for local races. This has led to some party jumping, occasionally by candidates, but more often by voters, so they can have a say in the leadership of the county.

In an ideal world, we would be choosing the best candidates to lead us regardless of political affiliation. But let's not kid ourselves, even in nonpartisan races, politics will slowly creep in. Look no further than the two most recent races for seats on the Carroll County Board of Education — the political parties have made their favored candidates known, either by quietly listing ones they support on the central committee websites or limiting whose campaign literature its members will distribute.

(Editor's note: For clarification, during the 2014 primary election cycle, the Carroll County Democratic and Republican central committees each posted a partial list of candidates running for the nonpartisan Board of Education on their respective websites. During the current election cycle, the Republican Central Committee has specifically endorsed only one candidate and is distributing only the literature of that candidate. The Democratic Central Committee has not endorsed any candidate in the nonpartisan race and is distributing literature from the three candidates who supplied it to the group.)

Back to the primaries, one reason that turnout may be so low is because independent or unaffiliated voters are shut out from the process in many states, like Maryland.

According to the Maryland Department of Elections, there are more than 737,000 voters registered as something other than Democrat or Republican as of the end of September. That's about 19 percent of the 3,892,000 registered voters in the state. In Carroll County, that number is slightly higher, about 20.5 percent of the 120,000 or so active registered voters who can't participate in the primary.

It doesn't have to be that way in Maryland, at least. It's likely a little known fact primaries are not completely closed in Maryland, that the two major parties in the state have the right to choose whether to allow unaffiliated voters to participate in their primary. However, both parties have chosen to keep their primaries closed.

But even open primaries don't guarantee you get to vote for the best candidates in every race. Hypothetically, perhaps you thought Republican John Kasich was the best choice for president, but preferred Democrat Donna Edwards to represent Maryland in the U.S. Senate (unlikely, sure, but go with me here). There's no way such a ballot could be cast even in an open primary, where unaffiliated voters still have to pick which party's ballot they want.

In June 2010, California voters approved using a "Top Two" primary system that required all candidates run in a single primary open to all registered voters, where the top two vote-getters regardless of party affiliation would meet in a runoff in the general election. The "Top Two" system doesn't apply to the office of president — you would still have to request a Democrat or Republican ballot to make your pick for the White House — but if you knew which candidate you preferred there, you would still have a wide range of choices in down ballot races.

Can you imagine if every state adopted such a system? Voters who now feel alienated by partisan politics would be more likely to participate and more races in the general election would matter, rather than being foregone conclusions. Who knows, in such a system, we may even find a few candidates who appeal to the masses rather than continuing to divide us.

Wayne Carter is the editor of the Carroll County Times. Reach him at wayne.carter@carrollcountytimes.com.

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