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Legislation would allow 'ranked choice' voting in Baltimore, a new way of counting ballots

Baltimore could become part of a growing movement that would offer more voters a chance to participate in its Democratic primaries and a new way to determine the winners.

The Maryland General Assembly will consider a bill to allow the Baltimore City Council to establish open primary elections or “ranked choice” voting for primary or general elections.

Del. Brooke Lierman, a Democrat who represents southeast Baltimore, prefiled the legislation ahead of Wednesday’s start of the 90-day General Assembly session. It would authorize the Baltimore City Council to adopt such voting systems, if a majority of council members want to.

“If we had ranked choice voting everywhere, our democracy would look so much better,” Lierman says.

Under current law in Baltimore, candidates can win a primary or general election with less than 50 percent of the vote. Catherine Pugh, for instance, won the Democratic primary for mayor in 2016 with 36.6 percent of the vote.

The same can happen in state elections. Ben Jealous won the 2018 Democratic primary for governor with 39.6 percent of the vote.

Under a ranked choice system, city voters would make their top pick for an office, but then could rank the other candidates for that office in order of preference. There are different methods for how to count the votes but, generally, if a candidate doesn’t receive a majority once everyone’s No. 1 choices are counted, elections officials count voters’ second choices and then third choices until a candidate has a majority.

In some systems, voters who pick a last-place finisher as their top choice can see their No. 1 choice dropped from the tally in the second round and have their No. 2 choice counted instead. The Maryland legislation does not spell out details of how a ranked choice voting system would be implemented in Baltimore.

Ranked choice voting, sometimes called instant-runoff voting, has been used since 2007 in one Maryland city: Takoma Park in Montgomery County.

Lierman’s bill also would give the Baltimore City Council the power to establish open primaries for the offices of mayor, City Council president, City Council and comptroller. The City Council in 2016 formally asked the General Assembly for the authority to hold open primaries.

The resolution — sponsored by Councilmen Bill Henry and Brandon Scott — sought to open up the Democratic primary in Baltimore to independent voters as well as voters registered as Republicans, Libertarians, Green Party members and others. Seventy-nine percent of Baltimore’s voters are registered as Democrats. The second-largest group of registered voters are unaffiliated, at 12 percent.

“It authorizes us to make the decision at the local level,” Henry said. “We can have the hearings. We can solicit the opinions of the citizens and we can go from there.”

Henry called an open primary “fairer and more democratic.”

“A big chunk of the constituency are not members of the Democratic Party,” he said. “They’ve chosen to eschew partisan affiliation. They have to live here and, numbers being what they are, they don’t have a lot of choice” once the general election comes around.

According to Scott’s research for the 2016 resolution, just six of the 24 U.S. cities with the largest populations had closed primaries.

“Realistically, in Baltimore, you’re still going to get a Democrat,” Scott said of the result of an open primary. “But you’ll get the best Democrat and the person most people want. It’s tough to govern when you didn’t win a majority of the actual vote.”

Roger Hartley, dean of the University of Baltimore's college of public affairs, said ranked choice voting systems in general elections are typically seen as beneficial to third-party candidates, because voters are less likely to write them off as having no chance of winning.

Candidates also could be less likely to personally attack each other, because they might want to be considered as the second choice for a rival’s supporters, he noted.

“There are strengths and weaknesses,” Hartley said. “It gives voters more opportunity for preference. It does change the dynamics of the election. In multicandidate races, you have to campaign in a different way. Third-parties get more of a say over the election.”

On the other hand, Hartley noted, such a system asks voters to be more highly informed and would be a significant change — potentially causing problems for voters.

“Some may be confused by the ranking system,” he said.

As for open primaries, Hartley said they, too, give third-party voters more of an opportunity to compete, which could concern some incumbent Democrats.

“Old Democratic machine politics won’t take kindly to an open primary,” he said.

A similar push for ranked choice voting is underway in Montgomery County. State Sen. Cheryl Kagan and Del. Eric Luedtke are sponsoring legislation for that county.

“Montgomery County had six candidates for county executive and 33 for County Council,” Kagan said. “There was a lot of strategic voting, which is not what we should be doing. It seems time to offer this as an option for Montgomery County.”

Lierman’s bill will be formally introduced Wednesday, the first day of the General Assembly session, in the House Ways and Means Committee.

luke.broadwater@baltsun.com

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