Here’s Montgomery Councilman Marc Elrich’s idea for boosting voter turnout: a series of ongoing radio/TV public service announcements educating voters about the importance of the County Council.
Yeah, that’s right, another ridiculous, self-serving program that won’t deal, one iota, with the abysmal voter turnout, but may justify creating a new “County Department of Voter Awareness” with its own offices, staff and budget. For the world’s Elriches, the answer to every social problem is more government.
Well, here’s my idea: radical election reform. Let’s scrap Maryland’s primary election system, which is undemocratic and helps contribute to political polarization. Thanks to closed primaries, the people who govern us are more politically extreme than those they govern.
Here’s why: Maryland, like most states, has closed primaries, which means the two candidates we choose from in November are preselected for us by party primary elections. These low-turnout primaries, limited to party voters, permit a small number of people to control who eventually gets elected, especially in a one-party state like Maryland, where the Democratic primary is the de facto election.
On June 24, councilman at-large Elrich was the top vote getter, but with only 16 percent of Montgomery’s registered Dems and a mere 9 percent of all county voters. Similarly, gubernatorial winner Anthony Brown got only 11.7 percent of the state’ registered Dems and only 6.4 percent of all voters. Some mandate.
An election system, enshrined in state law, that gives a small fraction of voters amplified control over who’s elected violates the spirit of “one person, one vote” fashioned by the U.S. Supreme Court 50 years ago, striking down state election systems, like Maryland’s, that gave rural voters more voting power than urban voters. Giving a small number of Dems and Republicans control over our general election ballot is equally wrong.
Also, closed primaries contribute to the political polarization that’s strangling compromise in our government. Primaries limited to only Dems or to only Republicans produce nominees who reflect party ideology, not mainstream ideology.
So the Dems elect nominees who are slaves to labor unions, environmental extremists, the gay lobby, radical feminists and minority groups. Similarly, GOP nominees owe their souls to business, evangelicals and the tea party. Several Maryland primaries last month saw Republicans purge incumbents who “weren’t conservative enough.” including an Anne Arundel councilman toppled by an arch-conservative who allegedly belongs to a national hate group.
Great — in November, we get to choose between whichever liberal extremists or conservative extremists the party special interests send us. No wonder voter turnout stinks.
So let’s blow up the closed primaries and start from scratch. Simply letting “unaffiliated voters” (registered voters who reject being Dems or Republicans) participate in the party primaries is half-hearted reform.
Instead, let’s adopt a “top-two” primary system like California, Washington and Louisiana have.
In a “top-two” primary, every candidate, regardless of party, runs on a single ballot and all voters, regardless of affiliation, may vote. The top two vote getters, regardless of party, face each other in the general election. It doesn’t matter if the finalists belong to the same party or not.
But, because all of Maryland’s voters participate equally in the primary, most candidates will move to the middle away from their party ideology in order to win. Thus, the two finalists and the eventual winner are likely to be mainstream moderates.
But won’t this ruin the political parties? Maybe, but so what? What’s more important, your state or your party?
And, by the way, the political parties are already shrinking. Thirty years ago, 69 percent of Maryland’s voters were Dems. Today, it’s only 55 percent.
Twenty years ago, 29 percent of Maryland voters were Republicans. Today, it’s only 26 percent. Meanwhile, independents and “others” have grown from 7 percent in 1984 to 19 percent today.
And please don’t pretend that Maryland enjoys a competitive, two-party system. On Nov. 4, 37 percent of our state legislature candidates will automatically win because they are unopposed or are running in multi-member districts without a full slate of opponents. All of Maryland’s statewide officials are Dems, as is 88 percent of our Congressional delegation.
Dems control veto-proof majorities in the General Assembly and govern the residents of Montgomery, PG and Baltimore city, from the White House all the way down to the courthouse. So please tell me exactly what good political parties do us other than propping up a political cartel.
I admit that primary election reform won’t be easy. It means changing state laws that are controlled by the very incumbents who operate and benefit from the status quo. Other likely obstructionists include labor unions and the other special interests who control the Dem Party. Also, African-Americans will cry “foul” because “top two” primaries dilute the voting power blacks exercise in Dem primaries.
But blacks can’t have it both ways. In Mississippi last month, when Black Dems derailed a tea party Republican by voting in a runoff primary for Republican U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, Jesse Jackson crowed, “You cannot win in the new South or in national elections with all-white primaries. This is a new America today.”
Well, all-black and predominantly-black Dem primaries in Maryland are just as wrong, Rev. Jackson, aren’t they?
Who will lead this election reform movement? An odd coalition made up of good government types (League of Women Voters, ACLU, editorial writers) and folks who gain most from a more moderate state government (taxpayers, business people and, if they have any sense, Republicans).
And once these reformers fix Maryland’s flawed primaries, they can confront Maryland’s corrupt gerrymandering system.
Blair Lee is chairman of the board of Lee Development Group in Silver Spring and a regular commentator for WBAL radio. His past columns are available at www.gazette.net/blairlee. His email address is email@example.com.