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The lesson of Dixon's write-in campaign

Don't write in Dixon, but do push for meaningful general elections in Baltimore.

We endorsed state Sen. Catherine Pugh for mayor over former mayor Sheila Dixon in April's Democratic primary, and events since then have only made us more confident in our choice. We recognize Ms. Dixon's experience and a number of accomplishments of her administration, but we also remain disappointed in her inability to articulate true remorse for the ethical lapses that forced her from office, and we continue to believe Baltimore needs a unifying figure, not one who polarizes the city in the way Ms. Dixon does.

Ms. Pugh, on the other hand, enjoys widespread support across racial, economic and neighborhood lines — she was the first or second choice of every precinct in the city in the primary, a remarkable feat given the large number of attractive candidates in that race. She handled the controversy surrounding improperly counted ballots graciously, she has worked effectively with outgoing Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to ensure a smooth transition, and she has recruited top-flight talent to join her administration. Her endorsement of putting civilians on police trial boards, despite the objections of the Fraternal Order of Police, is a powerful indication that she will be willing to do the hard work necessary to enact reforms related to the Department of Justice's report on the city's police department. When it comes to the question of whether to vote for Ms. Pugh or sign on to the write-in campaign Ms. Dixon formally launched today, it's no contest.

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That said, we do appreciate Ms. Dixon's effort in that it calls attention to a circumstance of Baltimore municipal elections that demands reform. The former mayor is right that voters were closely split between her and Senator Pugh in the primary election — Ms. Pugh got 48,709 votes and Ms. Dixon got 46,301. Each got at least 30,000 more votes than their next nearest rival. Now, though, Ms. Pugh faces off in the general election against Republican Alan Walden, who got 3,069 votes in the GOP primary — a result that would have landed him in seventh place in the Democratic primary, just behind activist DeRay Mckesson — and Green Party candidate Joshua Harris, who won his primary with 58 votes. That doesn't make much sense.

There is a better way. California has adopted a system of open primaries — that is, voters can choose among all the candidates, whether they are Republicans, Democrats, members of some other party or unaffiliated — and in a unique twist, the top two finishers, regardless of political party, face off against each other in the general election. Thus, in the highly contested U.S. Senate race, for example, Attorney General Kamala Harris, a Democrat who got more than 2 million votes in the primary, will face fellow Democrat Rep. Loretta Sanchez, who got nearly 1 million votes, rather than Republican Duf Sundheim, who got just over 400,000 votes. We urged Baltimore to follow that model five years ago, when Senator Pugh came in a strong second to Mayor Rawlings-Blake, and the results of this election again make the case for reform.

We expect that if Baltimore were operating under such a system this year, a general election between Ms. Pugh and Ms. Dixon would serve only to confirm and amplify the senator's victory. Given the history, far more of the votes for other candidates would swing to Ms. Pugh than Ms. Dixon. But that's not necessarily true in several City Council races, which were more hotly contested than Baltimore has seen in years.

In district after district, voters were faced with an embarrassment of riches when it came to quality candidates, so much so that the winner received less than 50 percent of the vote in eight of the 14 districts. Republicans are on the ballot in five of those districts, and Green Party candidates in three. Yet only one — the 1st District, which covers Canton and surrounding areas — is expected to be at all competitive in the general election. Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, carried that district in 2014, and the Republican council nominee, Matthew McDaniel, garnered 879 votes in April's primary. That's only about 40 percent as many votes as were received by the Democratic nominee, Zeke Cohen, yet it's a far better showing than any other Republican council nominee in the city.

An open primary, top-two system could actually help Republicans, Greens and others to break through. Under the current system, Democrats' dominance in city voter registration has historically made the primary the only election that counts, so those who want a voice must register as Democrats, further cementing the status quo. For that reason alone, it's unlikely that the Democratic powers-that-be would ever endorse such a reform. But if we want city elections to effectively reflect the preferences of voters, there's no question that it would be an improvement.

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