Maryland has for so long offered a “closed” primary system — in which voters affiliated with the Democratic or Republican parties choose their preferred candidates who then face each other in the general election (as well as any qualifying non-affiliated or third-party candidates) — that many people may not realize there are other ways to elect leaders.
Here’s one that might be the most sensible: Conduct an “open” primary where all candidates, regardless of party affiliation, run against one another. The top two finishers then face off in the general election.
There are a number of advantages, but the biggest one has been — once again — demonstrated by Baltimore’s hard-fought mayoral primary. The victor will face a laugher in the fall.
No offense to the potential challengers, but for someone other than the winner of the Democratic primary to win citywide office, not only pigs will have to fly, but cows, sheep and horses, too, all joining together to do barrel rolls over Camden Yards. Four years ago, no one came close in the general election to the votes won by Democratic primary winner Catherine Pugh (134,848). Even the runner up in the primary, former mayor Sheila Dixon, who ran again in this primary, won more general election votes in 2016 as a write-in candidate than the Republican and Green party candidates combined (46,471).
There’s no secret here. Democrats outnumber Republicans by a huge margin in Baltimore. And so the pattern continues: meaningful primary, followed by meaningless general election. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Indeed, it shouldn’t.
This year’s primary election makes an even better case for why a “Top Two Primary” makes more sense than ever in Baltimore and, frankly, the rest of the state. Early results showed that tens of thousands of voters preferred someone other than the leaders. So, instead of having the primary be the end of it, what if instead, for example, Ms. Dixon and candidate Brandon Scott faced each other in a November runoff? Then Democrats who supported other credible candidates like Mary Miller, Thiru Vignarajah and T.J. Smith can have a choice that doesn’t necessarily require them to desert their political principles.
The top two runoff isn’t a new concept. California and Washington use variations of it already, while Nebraska runs a nonpartisan primary for legislators. Here are the two biggest knocks against a top two system: It’s unhelpful to third-party candidates, who often benefit when the results are split between Republicans and Democrats. And it tends to boost more moderate candidates, rather than liberal Democrats or conservative Republicans who poll well in low-turnout primary contests. It’s for this latter reason that a lot of party leaders are, at best, somewhat lukewarm to the idea. But is it really in the best interest for the political party insiders to call the shots and not the voters? Might government actually function better with fewer extremists in charge whether in Washington or state capitals or city halls?
That’s not to say that Baltimore is alone in facing meaningless general elections in Maryland. In Prince George’s County, for example, Democrats outnumber Republicans by margins similar to Baltimore’s. And there are certainly areas of the state where Republicans dominate local races, too. A top-two selection process could keep those general election decisions something other than no-brainers as well.
And there’s another possibility: Ranked choice voting, where primaries aren’t settled unless a candidate receives at least 50% of the vote. Otherwise, secondary choices are factored in (who voters picked as their second or third favorite candidates, for example) as a kind of “instant runoff.” It’s a system used in a handful of states and more than 20 municipalities including Takoma Park in Maryland. It was used statewide in Maryland as early as 1912 but abandoned more than 90 years ago. It won’t solve the laugher general election problem, but at least it means the party nominee has more than ardent core supporters who stuck with him or her in a crowded primary.
In either case, the post-November political environment might be exactly the right time for all types of overdue government reforms, whether at the ballot box or elsewhere, given what a miserable year it’s been. And it’s only June.
The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.