As part of a larger conversation about increasing voter turnout, Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton thinks perhaps the city could look at urging the county to support open primaries.
In an open primary, any registered voter may vote regardless of their party affiliation. Maryland currently holds separate Democratic and Republican primaries.
Officials in Rockville’s elections run without any party affiliation, but Newton thinks the city could either urge the county to support a change or support making the issue a legislative priority for the Maryland Municipal League.
The move would be an effort to bring people who may feel left out the political process and increase voter turnout for state and county elections, she said Monday.
“We run nonpartisan in the city,” Newton said at an Aug. 11 meeting of the mayor and council. “But then when you couple all of that up on when we’re trying to work forward in this county that is so heavily Democratic, then I think people are feeling very disenfranchised.”
Newton said Monday that she’s talked to several Republicans in the county who have told her they sometimes don’t come out for elections because they know the winner is going to be a Democrat.
As of the end of July, registered Democrats in Montgomery outnumbered their Republican counterparts 356,817 to 122,007.
There were 147,902 unaffiliated voters, who can’t vote in either party’s primary but can vote in nonpartisan races such as school board, in the county.
In June’s primary, nearly 24 percent of Democratic voters came out to vote, while about 12 percent of Republicans went to the polls, according to statistics from the Maryland State Board of Elections.
Less than 3 percent of unaffiliated voters cast ballots in the primary.
Overall turnout in the county was just more than 16 percent.
Open primaries are an interesting concept, but also an idea that is “fraught with land mines,” said Michael Higgs, chairman of the Montgomery County Republican Central Committee.
One of the potential pitfalls is that an open primary can allow members of one party to determine who another party’s nominee will be, he said.
He questioned whether Democrats voting in a Republican primary would truly be motivated to put up the best candidate to break the Democratic monopoly in the county.
Montgomery currently has no Republicans representing it at the county, state or federal levels.
Higgs said he would be willing to consider a plan that allowed registered independents to vote in a party primary.
Kevin Walling, chairman of the Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee, said the idea of opening up primaries is an interesting conversation to have, particularly as the county gets more independents.
As the Democratic Party chairman, Walling said he doesn’t want to see registered Republicans voting on a Democratic nominee, or vice versa.
But he would be interested in looking at allowing independents to vote in either the Democratic or Republican primaries.
Montgomery County makes early and absentee voting easy, meaning that low turnout doesn’t stem from voter access issues but rather a voter motivation issue, Walling said.
County Councilman Philip M. Andrews (D-Dist. 3) of Gaithersburg, said he has called for Maryland to go to an open primary system and is glad that Newton is also thinking about the issue.
Andrews said Montgomery wouldn’t be able to make the change on its own, but he believes it’s something the county should advocate for.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 11 states hold open primaries and 11 states’ primaries are closed.
Four states hold primaries in which candidates of all parties are listed on one ballot and the top two vote-getters move on to the general election, while 24 states — including Maryland, which allows unaffiliated voters and members of smaller parties to vote for nonpartisan offices such as school board — use hybrids of open and closed primaries.
Andrews, who sought the Democratic nomination for county executive in the June primary, said he believes open primaries would increase the “abysmal” turnout from recent elections and encourage candidates who can appeal to a wide range of voters.
The change would also encourage more unaffiliated voters to come out, Andrews said.
He said the county and state need to try different approaches to increase declining turnout.
“It’s time for some major reform,” he said.