Every political season, at about this point, unaffiliated, or independent, voters wake up and discover they can’t vote in Maryland primary elections. These are the folks who reject both major parties, for whatever reasons, but suddenly demand a voice in their internal affairs.
They realize that, through their own bravado, disgust or expression of defiance – and dare to say, ignorance – they’ve surrendered the franchise. And, like it or not, this is the way it should be.
Primary elections are family affairs. The point of the primary is to settle internal party disputes and competition, kind of like that of resolving a kitchen-table argument.
Voting is triage. Throughout the dissonance and clamor in the run-up to election day (June 26), voters size up the candidates and eventually pick the one they hope can deliver the pork chop for the party in November. But voters, sadly, are collectively wise but not infallible.
Primary elections, tactically, are completely different affairs than general elections. The candidate(s) who fails to recognize the difference is doomed to defeat. Primaries are based largely on organization – organizing the vote and delivering it on election day. To roughly paraphrase Otto von Bismarck, God is on the side with the best get-out-the-vote operation.
General elections are about issues and personalities and the differences between parties. Put another way, primaries are won on the ground, and general elections are won on the air. And, to be fair, independents become a prized target of candidates (consultants) in general elections when they are effectively the swing vote.
Primary results can often be forewarnings of difficulties in general elections. The 2014 Democratic primary is a handy example. In that primary election, the Democratic nominee, now-Rep. Anthony Brown, then the lieutenant governor and party establishment favorite, won the nomination but with low voter enthusiasm and light turnout. Only 16 percent of the voters in his home county of Prince George’s came out to vote in the primary, and in neighboring Montgomery, the state’s most populous county, only 19 percent turned out on primary day – a certain sign of trouble ahead. Brown lost to now-Republican Gov. Larry Hogan.
That said, Maryland is one of 11 states that has a closed primary election system. That is, voters can only participate in the elections of the political party to which they’re registered. In addition to Maryland, the closed primary states are: Delaware, Florida, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York and Pennsylvania.
Thirteen other states have open primaries wherein voters can cast their ballots for whatever party they choose. They are: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia and Wisconsin.
Still others have semi-closed primaries that allow voters to register or change registration on election day. Those states are: Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, Utah, West Virginia and Wyoming.
The rest have variations on the two, the most novel being, as usual, California, where party doesn’t matter and elections are basically run-offs that are awarded to the candidates with the most votes regardless of affiliation.
(There are conflicting definitions of open, closed and mixed states, so some are omitted because of contradictory listings.)
Open primaries, or cross-over elections, may be appropriate for homogenous, small-population states such as Wyoming where parties make little difference to 587,000 like-minded and look-alike people. And for anyone who’s wondering, the courts, lower and Supreme, have consistently upheld the validity of closed primary elections, most recently in 2017 in a case involving a Republican party challenge in New Mexico.
What’s more, the decision as to whether to have closed or open primary elections is left to political parties and state laws. In Maryland, the option belongs strictly to political parties. A number of years ago, for example, the Republican Party in Baltimore City decided to open its primary election to voters of all flavors. The experiment didn’t play well, and the short-lived practice was abandoned.
So why, it is fair to ask, would any respectable political party want to open its primary balloting to what is basically cross-over voting which, getting right down to it, invalidates political parties? Such a decision here in Maryland would be an invitation to mischief-makers of all stripes, skullduggery at its most devious and an outpouring of campaign dollars the likes of which haven’t circulated since the bad old days when walk-around money was the coin of the realm in urban politics. There have been primaries in other states where organized and deliberate shifts of huge blocs of voters from one party to another’s candidate skewed election returns.
Back in the day, it was the function of the “muldoon” to control the size of the voter turnout on primary election day, for or against candidates. You won’t find the word muldoon in the dictionary, but it’s a moniker that survives from the corned-beef-and-cabbage wards of Boston, Baltimore and Chicago and other big cities where the political machine was supreme. The muldoon was the person in the precinct or ward with the largest extended family – children, aunts, uncles, cousins, in-laws, neighbors, friends and other adopted allies – and thus could deliver the largest vote. An open primary in Maryland would be a return to bossed-and-bought politics.
The new politics is the old plugged into computers. Facebook is the new muldoon, the largest extended family ever assembled. And micro-targeting is nothing new. It used to be called narrowcasting. And still, nothing beats the personal touch of selectively knocking on doors, the way the muldoons conducted politics.
There are 704,106 unaffiliated, or independent, voters registered in Maryland who might argue that they are being denied the right to vote in primary elections. Too bad. That’s their choice, not our problem. And why, for crying out loud, should a party allow anyone to vote in its primary who rejected it in the first place?
That number should be even more terrifying to Democrats and Republicans, though. It’s the fastest growing fraction of the electorate, almost as many independents as the 1 million Republicans and about a third of the 2.1 million Democrats – a pretty sizeable chunk of Maryland’s roughly 4 million registered voters.
And, as expected, the subdivisions with the greatest populations have the highest number of independent voters, and, surprisingly, there are 15,000 more independent voters in Baltimore City than its 30,000 Republicans. Here is a sampling: Montgomery County, 142,806 registered independents; Anne Arundel, 83,406; Baltimore County, 91,330; Prince George’s County, 66,708; and Baltimore City, 45,798.
If vengeance in the voting booth is your thing, there is still plenty of room in November for send ‘em a message politics, if that’s what registering independent is supposed to be. The ballot is a smorgasbord of choices – mix-and-match, skip blocs of candidates altogether, pick the goofiest Mickey Mouse candidate on the ballot, hold your nose over bad choices, or stay home and pout the way you wasted the franchise in the primary.
And remember, no one is denying independents the right to vote; they’re giving it up when they register. So the next time an independent bellyaches about not being able to vote in primary elections, remind them of that. Voting early and often is a privilege in Maryland that comes only by being a card-carrying member of a political party.