Maryland nears record high voter registration — and independents make up the fastest-growing group

Ed Brown says he leans Republican on most issues, and will definitely vote for Republican Gov. Larry Hogan in the Nov. 6 election. But he isn’t a registered Republican, and he doesn’t plan on becoming one.

“Republicans are now the ‘Trumpian’ party, and I can’t deal with that on a number of levels,” said the 54-year-old software engineer, referring to President Donald Trump.

Brown said that a “seemingly open hostility towards black voters” such as himself has alienated him from the GOP. At the same time, he said, “Democrats take the black vote for granted,” and he felt that party was weak on economic issues.

The Howard County resident is part of the growing number of Maryland voters registered as independents, a number that’s grown faster than the tally for either Democrats or Republicans since the previous gubernatorial election. As of the end of September, the latest period for which the state Board of Elections provides numbers, 18 percent of voters were registered as independent — officially termed “unaffiliated.” That’s an 8 percent increase over September 2014. Democrats and Republicans each recorded 6 percent increases over the four-year period.

Maryland voter registration: By the numbers »

Meanwhile, voter registration in Maryland topped 3.9 million as of Sept. 30, and could reach a record high by Tuesday’s registration deadline for the Nov. 6 election, elections board data show. As of the end of last month, the number of active registered voters was 3,975,309 — just a couple thousand short of the state record of 3,977,637, set in January 2017.

How to register to vote in Maryland »

Democrats continue to hold a 2-to-1 registration advantage over Republicans. Democrats make up slightly more than half of Maryland’s registered voters. Like Republicans, they experienced a rise in registrations right before the 2016 presidential election.

But since the 2014 midterms, unaffiliated voters have posted larger relative registration gains.

Todd Eberly, a political scientist at St. Mary’s College in St. Mary’s City, was not surprised by the growth among unaffiliated voters.

“This is what we’ve been seeing happening nationally,” he said. “There doesn’t seem to be a great deal of love for either of the parties.”

It is also a continuation of a statewide trend, as conservative voters who identified as Democrats in areas such as Southern Maryland switch to unaffiliated. Eberly said that in 2000, 14 percent of the voters in Calvert and St. Mary’s counties were unaffiliated. Now, the number is more than 20 percent in both counties.

But the trend goes back farther than that. In 1978, the Maryland electorate was 70 percent Democratic, 23 percent Republican and 7 percent independent. Most of the shift appears to have been among Democrats, as Republican registration has remained in a narrow band between 23 percent and 27 percent since at least 1962.

Eberly noted that the highest number of unaffiliated voters tend to be in suburban counties such as Anne Arundel, Howard and Montgomery.

“These are voters who are educated voters who understand the choice they’re making,” he said. “They don’t like the parties. They don’t want to pick one or the other.”

Nate Evans, who left the Republican Party after the 2000 election and hasn’t been registered with either of the major parties since, said he hasn’t decided on his pick for governor. The 45-year-old Baltimore County resident, who has campaigned for Democrats in the past, said he supports Democrat John Olszewski for county executive and Republican David Marks for County Council.

When it comes to political parties, “I'm just not going to be affiliated with either one,” he said.

Voters in Maryland also can register as members of the Libertarian or Green parties, or they can specify another party under “Other.”

In Maryland, one consequence of being an unaffiliated voter is not getting to vote in party primaries. That leaves the choice of candidate to partisans on both sides.

“You’re seeing more conservative Republicans and more liberal Democrats, and they’re going to nominate candidates who reflect that,” Eberly said.

As the trend toward registering unaffiliated grows, Eberly said, there will be increasing pressure to open primaries to those voters.

In Maryland, parties can hold open primaries, but neither major party has done so since 2000. Republicans held a “semi-open” primary that year when they allowed independents to vote in Maryland’s presidential primary. The effort was initiated by supporters of George W. Bush who believed unaffiliated voters would be more likely to pick Bush in the general election if they had had a hand in his nomination, said Don Murphy, a former Republican delegate from Baltimore County.

Recent increases in registered independents since 2016 also might suggest that a wave following the election of Trump might be more purple than blue, at least when it comes to registration tallies.

But American University professor David Lublin cautions against getting too caught up in these numbers. Voter registration trends may be illuminating, but turnout is what really matters, said Lublin, who runs the local politics blog Seventh State.

Turnout was low in 2014 in Maryland, with 44.7 percent of registered voters casting a ballot in early voting or on Election Day (or 42 percent of the eligible voting population, according to the United States Election Project, which tracks voting data nationwide).

At this point, “it’s all about who shows up,” Lublin said.

To learn more about the methodology and review the computer code that generated the analysis, go to www.baltimoresun.com/2018-voter-registration.

czhang@baltsun.com

mdresser@baltsun.com

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