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Hold Open Primaries For All Elections

Photo: Illustrations by Tom Chalkley, License: N/A

Illustrations by Tom Chalkley


After Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake emerged the victor in Baltimore City’s 2011 Democratic primary—the polling that actually selects the city’s leadership, since the winner always goes on to win the general election in this overwhelmingly Democratic town—public outcry over dismal turnout in the race was shrill and indignant. Less than a quarter of eligible voters bothered to go to the polls, and drilling down on the numbers proved even more depressing.

Rawlings-Blake, with 38,829 votes in her favor, was backed by a mere 8 percent of Baltimore’s voting-age population. In some parts of the city, less than a fifth of registered Democrats went to the polls, and some City Council victors won with support from less than 10 percent of their districts’ Democratic electorate.

This clearly is not how a healthy democracy operates. Such rock-bottom involvement in the process that selects city leadership means vast numbers of residents feel little to no ownership over local government.

Pointing fingers at those who chose not to vote is the easy and obvious reaction—if you ask for nothing, that’s what you get. But that tack ignores a fundamental fact of Baltimore elections: Tens of thousands of registered voters are not invited to the private parties known as Democratic primaries because, well, they’re not Democrats. They are either registered independents or members of one of the four other parties recognized by the state board of elections: Republican, Greens, Americans Elect, or Libertarian.

There were 77,643 registered voters in the 2011 elections who were not Democrats, and today there are 79,513 of them, according to October’s voter-registration data, about 27,500 more than there were a decade ago. Allowing them to vote in the Democratic primary—making it what’s known as an “open primary,” a process used in presidential primaries in 18 states—would instantly change the city’s electoral dynamic.

All it would take is a decision by the city’s Democratic Party leadership to invite all registered voters to participate in their primaries. The city’s Republican Party did it for years, but it hardly mattered, since no Republican has been elected to city offices in generations.

Doing so would be a smart move, given the registration trends. About 30 percent of the past decade’s growth in Baltimore City’s electorate, which has nearly 90,000 more registered voters than it did in 2003, was fueled by people registering as something other than Democrats. Now 13 percent of the electorate chooses not to register in either major party, compared with 8 percent 10 years ago.

The larger this segment grows—and its growth has been inexorable—the more dramatic will be the impact of allowing them to participate in Democratic primaries. Yes, it’s a matter of fairness, since huge and growing numbers of tax-paying registered voters are shut out of participating in the publicly funded process that chooses their leaders. But it’s also a matter of reviving democracy in this town. So go ahead, Democrats, let everyone vote.

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