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Independent voters grow despite competitive primary contests

Dona Sauerburger describes herself as a "devoted Democrat," but the Gambrills woman is taking a pass on what could be the party's most exciting primary election in years.

That's because Sauerburger has chosen not to register with any political party. An independent voter, the 68-year-old plans to sit out the Maryland primary next April to make a broader point about what she sees as the sorry state of national and local politics.

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Despite potentially competitive primary contests shaping up throughout the state, an increasing number of voters in Maryland are making the same calculation as Sauerburger. More than 672,000 voters in Maryland have declined to pick a party, a 57 percent increase from a decade ago, data from the Maryland State Board of Elections show.

Nearly 24,000 Marylanders registered as unaffiliated voters since March, when Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski announced she would retire from the seat she has held since Ronald Reagan was president — opening up a rare competitive primary for Senate in the state.

"I have a larger goal in mind than participating in a party election," said Sauerburger, who works with the blind. "I have become increasingly — 'frustrated' is too mild a word. I'm in despair with how our government is functioning."

The long-standing trend, which is mirrored at the national level, continues despite the competitive Democratic primary race to replace Mikulski, a compelling primary for mayor in Baltimore City and two open U.S. House seats that have drawn more than a dozen candidates.

For Republicans, a crowded presidential field could keep the fight for the GOP nomination going into April, when Marylanders head to the polls.

Joe Pachino, a 64-year-old Pikesville man who said he has been unaffiliated with a party since college, said it burns him that he can't vote in the primary. But he feels strongly about his decision not to check the "Democrat" or "Republican" boxes on his voter registration form.

"There are times when I'm described as undecided. I'm not undecided," he said. "I'm decided that I want to be an independent."

Talk of opening up the state's primaries to unaffiliated voters emerges periodically, but it rarely happens.

Under Maryland law, parties may allow unaffiliated voters to cast ballots in their primaries by notifying the election board six months in advance.

The state Republican Party did so in 2000 — and considered opening its primary again two years ago. But there was ultimately not enough support among members of the central committee to try the approach again.

Joe Cluster, executive director of the Maryland Republican Party, said the 2000 primary allowed the GOP to identify thousands of new voters who, while not registered to the party, clearly demonstrated an interest in its candidates.

State data show 51,728 unaffiliated voters cast a ballot in the 2000 primary, though an unknown portion of them were voting in nonpartisan elections such as those for school boards.

Cluster echoed past analyses of the election from GOP leaders, most of whom felt the exercise did not significantly increase turnout.

"Don't get me wrong, there are many [independents] who care about voting," Cluster said. But, broadly speaking, he said, "they're the most disengaged voter."

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At least one state Democrat, Rep. John Delaney, has called for opening primaries for House contests.

The two-term lawmaker from Montgomery County introduced a bill in Congress this year that would let every voter cast a ballot in a primary regardless of party affiliation. The two candidates who receive the most votes, regardless of party, would move on to the general election.

California and Washington state both use the top-two system. In Louisiana, all candidates run on an initial ballot. If no candidate wins a majority, the top two vote-getters compete in a runoff.

Nineteen states have open primary elections for both parties, meaning voters can cast a ballot in either primary. Some states have hybrid systems. Massachusetts, for instance, allows unaffiliated voters to choose which party's primary they want to vote in.

Seventeen states, including Maryland, conduct closed primaries for both parties, according to the nonpartisan group FairVote, meaning that only voters enrolled in a party can vote in its primary.

Montgomery County, where Delaney's 6th Congressional District is based, has the largest share of unaffiliated voters in the state, with 24 percent declining to pick a party. Independents make up more than 20 percent of voters in Frederick, Howard, Cecil and Anne Arundel counties.

Statewide, 18 percent of voters are unaffiliated.

"Our democracy works best when all Americans have a voice and a vote," Delaney said in a statement. "In Maryland, the number of people who identify as independent is growing and I don't believe it makes sense to shut out anyone who wants to participate from the electoral process."

Polling suggests unaffiliated voters in Maryland are split about evenly in their political ideology. When independents are pressed on which way they lean, pollsters at Goucher College found last September, 36 percent say they identify with Democrats, 31 percent say Republican and an equal share say they do not lean one way or the other.

The pollsters found a 7 percentage point increase since 2012 in independents identifying with the GOP — a jump that could partially explain Republican Gov. Larry Hogan's win last November.

Some independent voters, like Sauerburger, are engaged and want to bring about change by abandoning the status quo. But research shows that others just aren't paying close attention to politics. Half of nonleaning independents report voting, researchers at the University of Michigan found in 2008, compared with 90 percent of Democrats and 95 percent of Republicans who identified themselves as strongly associated with their party.

"Everybody wants to worship at the altar of the independent voter — they think independent voters are above partisan politics, that they think about the issues and not the party — but when you start to break it down, people who strongly associate themselves with a political party pay more attention … than the independents," said Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher.

"People want to disparage partisan politics, but it's one of the reasons people are engaged," she said.

Patrick Murray, the executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party, said he isn't aware of any effort to open the Democratic primary in the state.

"My sense of independents is they are people who say, 'I want to be part of the political process but I don't want to be taken for granted,'" he said. "Generally, I think we approach independents as folks who are critical to a general election strategy."

With little interest in opening the state's primaries and Delaney's legislation unlikely to advance, independents will have to sit out the April election — or give in.

Steve Weiss says he has voted for candidates of both parties, but he registers as a Democrat so he has a role to play in the state's primary.

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"I would be an independent if I had the chance to vote in the primaries," the Gaithersburg man said. "I resist that status because I don't want to be disenfranchised.

"My franchise is already whittled away enough. I don't want to give it away."

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