Instead of running for mayor, Gary Brooks has opted to throw his campaign efforts behind a single issue — open, nonpartisan primary elections for Frederick officials.
“An election is to find the best people to run your city, not the best people a political party puts forward,” Brooks said.
Brooks — who said he considered running for mayor before deciding to fight for open elections — is the operations manager and owner of Barley and Hops Grill and Microbrewery and a former member of the Frederick Planning Commission, serving from 2009 to 2011.
Presenting his arguments to the Frederick Board of Supervisors of Elections on Wednesday, Brooks said the city’s closed primaries prevent about 23 percent of the 36,539 registered voters from participating.
“Telling someone that they will have to join a political party to be able to cast a vote in a city election paid for by all citizens sounds of Marxist governments of the ‘30s,” he said. “That’s a big statement, but I believe it.”
The current closed primary system only allows Republican and Democratic party candidates to run, with only residents registered with either party permitted to vote in the primary elections.
The top vote-getters — one mayoral candidate and five aldermanic candidates from each party — advance to the general election, where anyone can vote for a candidate, regardless of party affiliation.
Third-party candidates who file for city office are only included on the general election ballot. The state election system works in the same manner.
Brooks discussed the possibility of getting a referendum question to amend the city’s charter put on the ballot for the 2013 election, in which city voters will elect a mayor and five-member Frederick Board of Aldermen.
To bring it to referendum, Brooks and fellow nonpartisan election supporters will need to gather signatures of 20 percent of the city’s registered voters.
There were 36,539 registered voters in the city as of Jan. 1, according to Stuart Harvey, director of the Frederick County Board of Elections.
Of those, 8,491 residents are registered as unaffiliated or with a third party, such as the Libertarian Party, meaning a little more than 23 percent of Frederick residents can’t vote in the primary elections.
There are 10,749 registered Republicans and 17,299 registered Democrats, Harvey said.
For the petition to make it to the ballot, Brooks and other supporters would need to collect 7,308 signatures.
There are four municipalities in the state that hold partisan elections — Annapolis, Baltimore, Frederick and Hagerstown. The other 153 hold open elections, according to Thomas Stevenson of the Maryland Municipal League.
Katie Nash, a former member of the city Republican Central Committee who has advocated for the change to nonpartisan elections in the past, said she plans to make it a campaign issue as she runs for alderman.
Nash said she realizes that there are fewer Republicans than Democrats in the city, but it is important to allow all residents to vote in elections that are paid for by their tax dollars.
“This is a pretty big voting block,” she said. “Philosophically, I don’t believe you shouldn’t let people vote.”
Not everyone is in favor of the nonpartisan elections, however.
Steve Gottlieb, chairman of the Frederick County Republican State Central Committee, said that although he is in favor of nonpartisan elections, he didn’t think the party would support it at the state level.
“Personally, I think it’s a good idea,” he said. “Most issues in the city are not necessarily party partisan issues — it’s more or less do the streetlights work? Are the streets clean? Is my garbage picked up? .... I think the Republican Party as a whole is probably not going to like the idea, because the whole idea of the party leadership is to bring people into the party.”
Myrna Whitworth, the chairwoman of the Frederick County Democratic State Central Committee, called open elections a “very bad idea” for Frederick. She said the city is becoming more important at the state level and nonpartisan elections would be a step in the wrong direction.
Whitworth said the nonpartisan elections work well in rural areas, where it essentially functions as a single party of government.
She also said a registered Democrat or Republican doesn’t necessarily have to vote along party lines in a general election.
“People that are unaffiliated are unaffiliated for a reason,” she said. “If they feel strongly about voting in the primary, they should register as a Democrat or Republican. They can register as a Democrat or Republican and vote in the primary and vote whatever they want in the general.”
This year’s city primary elections will be held Sept. 10, while the general election is Nov. 5.
Candidates who are registered Republicans or Democrats have until July 2 to file. Unaffiliated candidates must file by May 1. Third-party candidates must be nominated by their party by Aug. 5.
Only one candidate — incumbent Alderman Kelly Russell (D) — has filed for the current election, according to the city’s website.