xml:space="preserve">
xml:space="preserve">
Advertisement
Advertisement

Open the primaries

The fastest growing segment of Maryland's electorate is voters who decline to identify as Republicans or Democrats. As The Sun's John Fritze reported recently, their numbers are up by 57 percent in the last decade, and they continue to grow despite the likelihood that both major parties will have competitive primaries in marquee races next year. Whether it stems from disgust with the Republican and Democratic parties, disinterest or some other reason altogether, nearly 675,000 voters — 18 percent of the electorate — are voluntarily taking themselves out of the earliest, and often most crucial, part of the democratic process.

One major figure in Maryland politics, U.S. Rep. John Delaney, a Montgomery County Democrat, is seeking to do something about that by pushing legislation in Congress that would allow voters to cast ballots in a primary regardless of whether they are registered as members of that party. The top two vote getters, whatever party or parties they may be from, would square off in the general election. It's a great idea that has worked well in California and Washington state, and it would be particularly useful in a place like Baltimore.

Advertisement

Since the city's electorate is so overwhelmingly Democratic, the winner of that party's primary typically faces only token opposition in the general election. In 2011, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake got about 52 percent of the vote in the primary but 84 percent of the vote in the general election. Her closest Democratic competitor, state Sen. Catherine Pugh, got three and a half times more votes in a six-way primary than the Republican nominee did in the general election. Allowing voters to choose among the top two Democrats from the primary would greatly increase the chances that the winner would truly reflect the will of the majority of voters.

Unfortunately, Mr. Delaney's proposal isn't likely to go anywhere. We could make good government arguments in favor of his proposal all day, but it wouldn't make much difference. The powers that be in the Democratic and Republican parties simply don't see any reason to let unaffiliated voters — and especially members of another party — have a say in who their nominees are.

Advertisement

That's an understandable impulse, but it's increasingly self destructive.

Take the case of Maryland Democrats. Their closed primary process in the 2014 gubernatorial race nominated a candidate favored by party insiders — then-Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown's list of endorsements from his fellow elected Democrats was enormous — but one who failed to excite the broader electorate and suffered what, for the party, was a humiliating defeat to a novice politician, Gov. Larry Hogan. A similar story played out in 2002 when then-Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend lost to Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. Given Mr. Hogan's demonstrated appeal to centrist and disaffected voters — not to mention the lack of any obvious candidate to challenge him — wouldn't it make sense for the Democrats to cast a broader net in their 2018 primaries?

Maryland Republicans have different but equally compelling reasons to consider opening their primaries. They may have a strong candidate for the top of their ticket in 2018, but they face long odds in next year's contest to replace Sen. Barbara Mikulski. In past Senate elections, the party has typically nominated candidates who hew to conservative Republican views on virtually every issue, and they have typically been pounded by the Democratic nominee in November. An exception to some degree was then-Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele's 2006 race against then-Rep. Ben Cardin. Mr. Steele emphasized his independence, criticizing both parties at times and taking on issues of drug addiction and urban poverty that are atypical for Republicans. He didn't win, but in what was generally a good year for Democrats, he came closer than any Republican Senate candidate in Maryland in more than three decades.

All it would take for the state's parties to open their primaries is for them to notify the state Board of Elections six months in advance. Both have good reasons to do so. And as voters identify less and less with the two political parties, those reasons will only grow stronger.

Nationally, Republicans are seeing the danger of the growing bloc of independent-minded voters right now as party insiders grapple with Donald Trump's presidential campaign. After he refused in a debate to rule out an independent run, Republicans in some states, including Virginia, began talking about requiring a "loyalty oath" from those who seek slots on their primary election ballot — that is, a pledge to support the eventual Republican nominee and not to run as an independent. But there may be no better way to ensure a Trump third-party run than to shut him out of the Republican primaries, and a Trump third-party run may be the best way to give the Democrats an advantage in the general election. The more party insiders try to maintain control, the more voters are going to have their own ideas.

Recommended on Baltimore Sun

Advertisement
Advertisement