A vote for Md. GOP open primary policy

May 11, 1999|By Martin G. Madden

THIS month, the Maryland Republican Party will consider a proposal to open its presidential primary to state voters who are registered as independents. The Republican State Central Committee should enthusiastically endorse this resolution.

Such a change will foster more participation in our democratic process. It also presents the Republican Party with a chance to reach out to the fastest growing group of voters in Maryland.

Since the 1994 general election, the number of independent voters has steadily increased and now comprises 12 percent of state voters or 316,654 people. In contrast, Republican voter rolls have grown 4 percent annually, Democrats by 1 percent.

Understandably, independent voters have not historically voted as often as party-affiliated voters. For example, in last November's highly contested general election, independents voted at only half the rate of voters in the two major parties.

One can hardly blame independent voters for not showing up at the polls. Maryland's primary elections play a key role in determining general election victors, but the parties' rules exclude participation by independents.

Independents only have a voice in non-partisan primaries, such as local school board elections.

So it's no wonder that only 5.24 percent of independent voters turned out for the primary election. In the same election, Democratic turnout was 31 percent, and Republican, 29 percent.

In states with open primaries, independents tend to turn out in greater numbers for primary and general elections.

For example, Missouri and Hawaii, which boast open primaries, where independents are free to vote for candidates of either party, voter turnout rates for the 1994 general election were 75 percent and 77 percent, respectively. In Maryland, 60 percent of voters turned out for the general election that year.

Some people will argue that if Republicans let independents vote in their primary, there will be less reason to register as a Republican. Although there's probably some truth to this logic, the more likely result is that independents who vote for Republicans in the primary will come back and vote for them again in the general election.

Some states have made open primaries a fact of law, including, recently, California. Passage of a similar law in Annapolis, however, is extremely remote.

So it's up to each party to voluntarily vote to open their primaries to independents. The Republican Party's central committee should set the example for Maryland by voting for an open primary at its May 22 convention.

State Sen. Martin G. Madden is Maryland Senate Minority Leader. He represents Howard and Prince George's counties and has been in the Senate since 1995.

Pub Date: 5/11/99

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