New Md. voters shy away from major parties

GOP still outnumbered 2-to-1, latest figures show

`Majority of public is in middle'

Some say trend is fueled by the lack of choices

February 17, 2004|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

Despite taking over the governor's mansion for the first time in 36 years and announcing a drive for members, the Republican Party failed last year to increase its share of registered voters in Maryland. The state remains dominated by Democrats but continues to see a steady rise in independents.

The State Board of Elections' preliminary year-end statistics for 2003 show that Republicans have no greater share of Maryland's electorate than they did before they captured the state's top job. Republicans remain outnumbered almost 2-to-1, with GOP voters making up 30 percent of the state's electorate and Democrats holding onto 56 percent.

Any gains Republicans are making in registering voters are being negated by a "tidal wave" of Democratic enthusiasm for the presidential primary, said Keith Haller, president of Potomac Survey Research, a Bethesda-based firm.

He said polls have shown that President Bush has lower favorable ratings in Maryland than in other areas of the country.

But there is little for Democrats to celebrate. New voters are increasingly avoiding both parties and choosing to be independents. Since 2001, the percentage of new voters registering in Maryland as independents rose from 12 percent to 21 percent by the end of last year.

"That's the huge story in Maryland politics," Haller said. "It's a growing phenomenon. If you're a party leader, that's somewhat a trouble sign."

A decline in party identification has been under way for 30 years across the country, said Curtis Gans, director of the Washington-based Committee for the Study of the American Electorate. The number of voters registering as independents has risen from less than 1 percent in 1962 to about 19 percent in recent years, he said.

He blames the decline on a drop in traditional, precinct-level party organizations, as well as a shift to the right by the Republicans and the failure of the Democrats to offer a compelling alternative. "People are not faced with a palatable set of choices," Gans said.

John Kane, chairman of the Maryland GOP who pledged to use the Ehrlich win to "rebuild" the party, said he believes it is having an impact on the state's political landscape. He said the Republican Party just finished its first year in the governor's mansion, so it is a bit early to expect substantial gains.

"It's not going to happen overnight," Kane said. "You're just not going to flip it that quickly. Our strategic plan does not call for immediate results."

There are almost 2.8 million registered voters in Maryland, with about 1.6 million of those listed as Democrats and 836,000 as Republicans. More than 86,000, or 46 percent of new voters in Maryland, registered as Democrats in 2003 while about 51,500, or 28 percent, joined the Republican Party.

But after voter lists were purged of those who have died or who have not voted in several election cycles, Democrats had a net loss of 9,926 voters, while Republicans dropped 2,846.

Meanwhile, the total number of independent voters increased by more than 5,000 to 368,720 over 2002.

Caroline Wall, a 26-year-old graphic designer who lives in Windsor Mill, said she switched from the Democratic Party to become an independent because the two major parties are failing to serve the people and promote more of their own interests.

"I do think the Republican Party is mostly upper middle-class white men and traditional families," said Wall, who became an independent in 2000. "They have exclusionary ideas about how the country should be run.

"The Democrat Party has some fundamental organizational issues," she said. "I find it hard to locate representatives who do anything but compromise. There really isn't a place for me in either party."

James Billiter, a 58-year-old Laurel resident who runs a software company, said he too has become disenchanted with what he sees as arrogance in both parties. He said he has temporarily switched from an independent to a Democrat so he could vote for Howard Dean in next month's primary, but after that election, he's going back to being an independent.

"I just don't like the party apparatus on either side," Billiter said. "I think we're far beyond the point where we need to be supervised by the elites. I think they need to be shaken up."

Haller said it would be difficult for Republicans to make any gains in voter registrations until the state gets closer to the 2006 gubernatorial election.

"It's often easier to register voters, at least in Maryland, when you have intensified local issues and local elections," he said.

But Haller added that Maryland Democrats have little room to become complacent. He said he believes the GOP leadership will have a significant impact on voter registrations at some stage leading to the next statewide election.

"I would argue that Republicans are not there yet ... in terms of having really strong grassroots organizations," Haller said. "But John Kane is a very smart and strategic Republican chairman."

Sen. President Thomas V. Mike Miller, one of the state's leading Democrats, blamed national political forces.

"The reason for that is the increased partisanship flowing from Capitol Hill," Miller said. "The majority of the public is in the middle. They want partisans on both sides to work together."

Miller said he does not believe Republicans will make substantial gains in voter registration in Maryland, but are likely to win over independents during elections to make their campaigns successful.

"They can persuade independents to vote Republican," Miller said.

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