Broadening GOP's reach

Open primary: Why not let independents vote in Republican presidential primary next year?

May 07, 1999

REPUBLICANS in Maryland have to broaden their base if they expect to win statewide office soon.

That's the conclusion of Ellen R. Sauerbrey, who lost the last two gubernatorial elections because her conservative GOP support proved too narrow. She and other party leaders are endorsing a plan to let independents vote in the Republicans' big presidential primary next March.

That would be a wise move by the state's minority party, whichhas made little headway in denting Democratic dominance of statewide offices. Democrats still retain a roughly 2-to-1 margin in voter registration. To become viable in statewide races, Republicans must appeal to independent voters.

At the moment, 316,000 independents cannot vote in Republican or Democratic primaries. That has discouraged independents from voting at all. In last November's general election, independents voted at only half the rate of Democrats and Republicans.

The GOP's central committee should agree to the proposal to open the 2000 primary to independents at its May 22 meeting. It's a sensible suggestion. If this approach were to pay off next March, it would open a debate over making the change permanent. Such a move could dramatically alter the balance of political power in Maryland over the next decade.

Marylanders are registering as independents at an increasing rate. Since 1994, independent voter rolls have been growing at 10 percent a year, compared with 4 percent for Republicans and 1 percent for Democrats. Independents could constitute 15 percent of the electorate when Maryland next chooses a governor in 2002.

Republicans ought to embrace this experiment. Twenty other states hold some form of open primary. Why not Maryland?

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