GOP talks of opening primary

State party chief proposes letting independents vote

"They are important"

Way to build party sought

Democrat calls move `desperate'

April 24, 1999|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

The recently elected head of Maryland's Republican Party said yesterday that he wants to open the GOP's presidential primary election next year to state voters who are registered as independents.

"There are a lot of people registered as independents who represent mainstream voters, and we want to make sure we reach out to them," said Richard D. Bennett, chairman of the Maryland Republican Party.

Bennett, who was gubernatorial candidate Ellen R. Sauerbrey's running mate in her unsuccessful bid to unseat Gov. Parris N. Glendening last year, said he will propose the change to the Republican Party's central committee when it meets May 22.

Maryland has a closed primary system, which means voters are permitted to vote only for candidates in the party for which they have registered. Those who identify themselves as independents are not permitted to vote in Democratic or Republican primary elections.

Maryland, long a Democratic stronghold, has 2.6 million registered voters, 58 percent of them Democrats, 30 percent Republicans and 12 percent independents.

Bennett said letting independent voters participate in the Republican presidential primary is a way to help build the state's party into a more potent political force.

"We're trying to make this a two-party state," Bennett said. "It's a step in reaching independent voters. We're going to be delighted in having them vote in our primary for president. They are important voters in Maryland."

Peter B. Krauser, chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party, said he sees Bennett's move as an act of desperation by a political party that he said is considered by most

Maryland voters to be outside the mainstream.

"He obviously doesn't trust his fellow Republicans to select a candidate acceptable to mainstream Maryland voters," Krauser said. "I think it's a sad sign of a party bereft of ideas and in search of an identity."

One-time trial

Bennett said his proposal is to open the GOP's March 7 primary election to independent voters. They could vote in the presidential, state, congressional and other races on the ballot in that election, he said.

The party will decide later whether it wants to open future primary elections, including those for state offices, he said.

Bennett said he is optimistic that the proposal will be approved when the GOP's central committee meets on the issue. All that is required is for the central committee to pass a resolution allowing independents to vote in the GOP primary, he said.

"I've gotten strong indications of support from all segments of the party," Bennett said. "I've not heard any strong voices of opposition to the concept. We must reach out to independent voters."

The Republican Party allows independent voters to cast ballots in GOP primary races in Baltimore. David R. Blumberg, chairman of the Baltimore City Republican Party from 1982 to 1998, said bylaws were changed in 1991 so that independent voters who live in the city could vote in Republican primaries.

Wider range of voters

Blumberg said he welcomes opening the presidential primary election to independents and hopes it will be extended to future elections in Maryland.

"I think after 1998 [state GOP election losses], Republicans need to look at different ways to get a wide range of voters participating in the party as early as possible in the election process," Blumberg said.

"This kind of step, albeit small, shows we welcome other opinions and welcome their input in shaping decisions."

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