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Republicans to get top billing on Maryland election ballots

Alan Walden, Baltimore's Republican nominee for mayor, hopes his top billing on the election ballot will help inch him a little closer to his Democratic competition when voters arrive at the polls in November.

"My name is first on the ballot: that is not an inconsequential item," said Walden, who faces Democratic state Sen. Catherine E. Pugh and Green Party nominee Joshua Harris in next month's contest.

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Walden's coveted ballot position — which he thinks should get him a couple of thousand votes — is thanks to a little known 45-year-old law that gives the position to members of the governor's party.

Donna J. Duncan, a top deputy at the Maryland State Board of Elections, said voters have contacted election officials to ask whether the sample ballots have been printed incorrectly, assuming the candidates' names would appear in alphabetical order as they do on the primary ballots.

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Democrats — who outnumber Republicans 2-1 in the state and 10-1 in Baltimore — will appear second on the ballot. Libertarian, Green and unaffiliated candidates will follow, based on the number of registered voters in each party, Duncan said.

That means Walden, presidential candidate Donald Trump, U.S. Senate candidate Kathy Szeliga and GOP hopefuls in other races will top the ballot for those offices.

The last time a Republican's name was listed first in Maryland was in 2006, when then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. lost re-election to Martin O'Malley, who was Baltimore mayor at the time.

That placement a decade ago "didn't help us one bit," said Joe Cluster, director of the Maryland Republican Party, recalling Ehrlich's seven-point loss to O'Malley.

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Cluster said picking up extra votes would be nice, but the GOP does not want voters to pick candidates for reasons such as ballot placement or party designation.

"If people just vote party line, we lose every time," said Cluster, who was appointed by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan this year to serve in the House of Delegates after his father, John W. E. Cluster Jr., a Baltimore County Republican, resigned to serve on the state parole board.

"We hope people know who they are voting for — and why."

Chuck Conner, who runs the Maryland Democratic Party, said Democratic candidates have worked to get to know voters and their concerns, and the party is confident voters will "recognize the names of our candidates on the ballot and recall the issues they support when early voting begins later this month and on Election Day in November, regardless of ballot placement."

Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College, said the top-line spot in a general election has next to no effect on voters, especially in elections such as November's, when the candidates are well known.

Uninformed voters typically resort to picking candidates they don't know in general elections based on party labels, she said. Alphabetical order helps top-slot candidates in a primary where voters don't have a Republican or Democratic cue.

"The party label is a strong enough guide," Kromer said.

Kromer called Walden's thoughts on capitalizing on the placement with a couple of thousand votes "a very optimistic perspective."

Even if it did, Walden would still have a gulf to make up in heavily Democratic Baltimore, where a Republican has not been elected in 50 years. In 2011, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake took more than 40,000 votes to her Republican challenger Alfred V. Griffin III's 6,100.

Max Hilaire, a political science professor at Morgan State University, said "putting a Republican first on the ballot isn't really going to matter."

Before the law was changed in 1971, officials clashed over whether candidates should be listed in alphabetical order or if placement should be based on a state tradition that allowed the party that controlled election boards to list their candidates first.

The period included various disputes over ballot placement, such as attempts to make it more difficult for third parties to appear on ballots after the "American Independent Party" and its presidential candidate, former Gov. George C. Wallace of Alabama, were included on the 1968 general election ballot.

Baltimore Sun research librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

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