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Spare Annapolis the dysfunction of D.C.

Political dysfunction in Washington captures our attention, but Annapolis is not immune from the same illness.

Less than one-half of registered voters, 47 percent, cast a ballot in the 2014 general election. And just 24 percent of Democrats and 24 percent of Republicans voted in the primary, which effectively chose the winner in the many districts that lean heavily to one party, despite hotly contested gubernatorial races. The true participation rate is lower, as many eligible voters are not on the registration rolls.

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The dramatic increases in spending on elections that have affected federal elections have not left state legislative contests untouched, either. One candidate spent an astonishing $418,000 in an unsuccessful effort to win the Democratic nomination for the House of Delegates last year. And the polarization at the federal level that has left the U.S. government unable to address key issues (and led to a downgrade of the country's credit rating) threatens to overtake Maryland as well.

Though I remain optimistic that this governor and General Assembly can work together, the decline of moderate legislators — one of the central results of the 2014 elections — has sharpened differences within the legislature. A recent study by Political Scientists Boris Shor and Nolan McCarty suggests that the parties in the Maryland General Assembly are even further apart than in the U.S. Congress.

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Healthy debate and disagreement are critical to democracy. They give citizens choices, represent a range of views and help vet ideas, and the separation of powers at the core of our system renders give-and-take vital. The trend toward ever-greater polarization makes elected officials less willing to compromise, however, and the public less certain that future state governments can manage the task.

Partisan sorting by ideology in both the electorate and the legislature — conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans have essentially disappeared — heightens polarization. Ideologically homogenous parties nominate candidates further away from the center. Most legislators fear defeat by ideologically purer primary challengers much more than by the other party.

Moreover, primaries already produce nominees even less centrist than the average Republican or Democrat because hardcore right and left-wingers are more interested in politics and pumped up to vote in these low turnout elections. It certainly gives voters "a choice, not an echo" but can make governing difficult.

Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, has already shown an interest in improving the political system through redistricting reform. Now, Del. Sheila Hixson and Sen. Jamie Raskin, both Democrats, have sponsored legislation to establish a Blue Ribbon Commission on Voting, Openness, Transparency and Equality (VOTE) to examine other potential reforms to our campaign finance and electoral system to head off these problems.

Like many, I am proud of our state's democratic heritage and feel fundamentally conservative about proposals to change it. Bad changes are worse than no changes. Israel's move in 1992 to direct election of its prime minister — intended to combat party fragmentation and produce more stable governments — only worsened the problem. Israel abandoned the experiment in 2001.

But it makes sense to get on the off ramp instead of heading directly into the blockages that plague the federal level. Reforms to the electoral system have the potential to encourage cooperation even as we respect the partisan differences that render our democracy vibrant. Happily, many of these changes can also encourage participation.

Careful exploration and vetting of alternatives by the VOTE Commission would make the probability of reforms producing positive outcomes significantly higher if and when the General Assembly takes them up. The commission should also examine the cost of different proposals, so that elected officials can better sense the feasibility and make informed judgments regarding them.

Capitol Hill looks like dysfunction junction. Let's take a look at possible changes that could help prevent Annapolis from following that route.

David Lublin is professor of government in the School of Public Affairs at American University and the former mayor of the Town of Chevy Chase. He blogs at theseventhstate.com.

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