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An election reform agenda for Maryland's next governor and legislature

In Maryland, registering as an “unaffiliated” voter, the term of art for an independent, means throwing away much of your political power. Maryland law allows political parties to hold open primaries — ones in which non-party members can vote — but the Democrats have not done that in recent memory, and the Republicans did only once. Being unaffiliated means you have no say about which names appear on the November ballot, and given the lopsided partisan leanings of many districts, the primary is often the only election that counts. That means you’d have to be pretty ticked off at the two major parties to register as an unaffiliated voter, yet as The Sun’s Christine Zhang and Michael Dresser report, the number of independents is growing faster than the number of Democrats or Republicans.

Maryland Democrats might have figured that the Trump era would be a boon for them. Maryland Republicans might have expected a registration boost from Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s tremendous popularity. But still, more people are saying no to either one. Maryland is by no means at the high end of unaffiliated voter registration — it stands at about 18 percent, compared to about 54 percent for Democrats and 26 percent for Republicans. In several states unaffiliated voters make up a plurality of the electorate (and in Alaska and Massachusetts, a majority).

We may ever get close to that, but there’s clearly some dissatisfaction among voters with the status quo. It seems to us that the parties might want to pause for a moment to consider what to do about that.

We have a few suggestions.

  • Open primaries in which voters of any party affiliation (or none) may participate is a clear first step. Hard-core partisans may not like the idea of ceding some control of the nominating process to those with different points of view, but it is the single easiest way to help ensure that the party’s nominee will represent the broader views of the electorate — and hence be electable in November. Governor Hogan managed to get through the primaries four years ago without tacking hard to the right, but future GOP nominees might not be so lucky. Democrats are in the midst of an experiment to see whether the state will rally around a gubernatorial candidate from the progressive wing of the party, Ben Jealous. We’ll find out the answer soon enough, but there would be less doubt about that question if the party’s nominee had been selected in open primary.
  • Public campaign financing of the sort being used for the first time in Montgomery County, and coming soon in Howard County, will help ensure that the candidates who get on the ballot are the ones with the most support from the voters, not just the most support from donors. Self-interested politicians often proclaim that people don’t want to see their tax dollars paying for political campaigns, but money in politics is one of the great sources of cynicism and dissatisfaction with the process. Baltimore City voters will get the chance to support public financing through a ballot question this year. We hope a strong showing of support will help push state-wide action on such a system.
  • Ranked choice voting has been gaining in popularity — Maine began using it state-wide this year — and it offers a chance for voters to feel that their voices are being heard. There are a number of different variations of RCV, but the gist is that voters rank their preferences in order so that even if their first choice candidate doesn’t get the most support, their views will still be taken into account through their second choice, third choice and so on. It’s particularly useful in crowded primary fields, like the one Democrats just fielded for governor. It also tends to cut down on negative campaigning — another big reason voters have been driven away from the parties — because candidates can’t just count on appealing to their bases; they also need to play for second- or third-choice votes.
  • And last but certainly not least, Maryland needs to adopt a non-partisan process for redrawing legislative and congressional district lines after each census. Voters hate the idea of party bosses gaming the system to their benefit, and there is no clearer example of that than gerrymandering. And no, playing games with redistricting — for example by promising to reform only if other states do as well — doesn’t count.

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