Early primary ill serves voters

March 7: Maryland's winter ballot date greatly favors one group: incumbent members of Congress.

January 11, 2000

IN JUST two months, Marylanders go to the polls to select Republican and Democratic candidates for the November ballot. It's the worst time of year to hold an election, but it serves the purposes of local political leaders.

It doesn't serve the interests of ordinary citizens, though.

Maryland's March 7 primary is the result of politicians seeking leverage in party presidential races. By the end of March, so many states will have held primaries that two presidential nominations could be locked up. Maryland voters get to have their say early enough so that the two races will still be in doubt -- or so the logic goes -- even though most folks in the state aren't paying attention.

Along with presidential races, the March 7 ballot contains primaries for the U.S. Senate and House as well as for circuit court judgeships. How many voters are actively following these campaigns? Many unregistered voters probably don't realize they only have until Feb. 11 to sign up.

This gives incumbents in Congress a huge advantage. It's no accident that only Roscoe G. Bartlett of Western Maryland has a credible primary opponent. Raising funds and putting together a volunteer staff in mid-January is exceedingly difficult.

Maryland used to have a May primary in presidential years. That was late enough to get voters' attention. There have even been years when Maryland held a split primary -- state elections in September and presidential primaries in May. Despite the added cost, this made sense. Maryland should return to a May presidential primary and ignore early balloting in other states. Primaries for other offices should not be held again in March -- unless the aim is to protect congressional incumbents. The interests of voters, not political leaders, should come first.

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