Next Time, Maryland Should Try Democracy

STUART COMSTOCK-GAY

March 04, 1992|By STUART COMSTOCK-GAY

If you imagined that yesterday's vote in Maryland would be your chance to express an opinion that it's time for radically new ideas, or candidates, then you are frustrated today. Maryland's democracy isn't for you. It isn't about voters expressing their opinions; it's about picking winners.

Under Maryland law, aspiring presidential candidates must either obtain the signatures of 3,200 registered voters or hope that the secretary of state will determine that a ''candidacy is generally advocated or recognized in the news media throughout the U.S. or in Maryland.''

This year, three Republicans (David Duke was one but he withdrew his name) and six Democrats (including Doug Wilder) were picked by the secretary. The national grass-roots organization of Lyndon LaRouche obtained petition signatures to place his name on the ballot.

For most Marylanders, probably 98 percent of those who wanted to vote, these names were enough. These names provided choices -- and besides, they included the winners.

But the favored candidates of some voters were excluded from the ballot. Some of these candidates are kooks, some are flakes, some are grandstanders. But some provide real alternatives and present messages which inspire.

Larry Agran is a Democratic candidate for president, the former mayor of Irvine, California. He's been seen on national television and has garnered hundreds of radio appearances and newspaper articles. His very serious platform includes a 50 percent cut in military spending, and using the resulting $150 billion a year to ''rebuild America.'' Appearing in Maryland last October, he spoke before 700 at a Maryland Democratic party bullroast and was interrupted by applause when he announced that $15 billion would be earmarked for federal assistance to schools.

But you couldn't vote for him yesterday. His name wasn't on the ballot.

Bob Kaufman is a Baltimore socialist activist. He began his campaign in December as an anti-David Duke effort. When Mr. Duke pulled out of Maryland, Mr. Kaufman stayed, to push his ideas about building jobs and limiting the power of the ''moneyed elite.'' Don't worry if you think he's wrong; nobody in Maryland was permitted to vote for him anyway.

Gene McCarthy inspired a generation in 1968. He served in the U.S. House and Senate for 22 years. In 1992 he's attempting to run again for president. He wants to tax the wealthy, slap tariffs on imports from overseas and shorten the work week so the amount of labor the country can support gets spread among more workers, reducing unemployment.

Like his ideas? Like to vote for him as a way of saying ''let's vote for people who stand for something?'' Not in Maryland.

Messrs. Agran, Kaufman and McCarthy were never likely to receive much support. But they would have received votes -- maybe hundreds or thousands of them. Maybe collectively, they would have received 1 percent of the vote. Would that not be a message? And if it weren't a message, if having their names on the ballots merely allowed Americans to express their opinions on the presidential elections, shouldn't that be enough? Unfortunately, an ACLU suit to place their names on the ballot was unsuccessful.

Some have argued that allowing ''minor'' candidates on the ballot diminishes the significance of the vote. But in the New Hampshire primary, there were 31 ''minor'' Democratic candidates on the ballot. And there were 23 Republican candidates in addition to President Bush and Mr. Buchanan. These candidates did not clutter the ballot. The significance of the major candidates' wins was not diminished by the additional names on the ballot.

But the many voices of New Hampshire voters were voiced. In the Republican primary, more than 11 percent of the voters refused to vote for either Mr. Bush or Pat Buchanan. Surely this argues for increasing access to the ballots.

In a country of pluralism and differences, insistence on conformity, especially in elections, should be anachronism. It's time that Maryland open up the ballots to true democracy, a democracy that includes more than just the most popular choices.

Stuart Comstock-Gay is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland.

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