Moving day

July 15, 2005

DO YOU KNOW the date of Maryland's next primary election? If you're like most people, you haven't a clue. As it happens, most people are correct. While the primary election is currently scheduled for Sept. 12, 2006, Democratic lawmakers are seriously considering moving it back to June. This has upset Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and supporters who think the Democrats want an early primary to gain political advantage.

Well, as the playground saying goes, duh. Some Democrats fear that a bruising battle between Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley will leave their nominee with too little time and money to beat the incumbent. They may be right, but it's a two-edged sword. Moving the primary to June could make it tougher on all incumbents, not just the governor. It hamstrings members of the General Assembly who are stuck in Annapolis from January to April; that's why so many House Democrats are balking at the idea (and may ultimately quash it).

But Mr. Ehrlich's supporters put the matter in bleaker terms. They see an early primary as part of a pattern of Democratic misdeeds. That's a hard case to make, especially since there's little evidence voters are much affected - or care. Certainly, the primary date in presidential election years has been moved around plenty (and purely for political reasons). Turnout seems far more affected by voter interest in particular races (Bush vs. Kerry) or issues (such as Maryland's "Saturday night special" ban).

There's a certain irony in hearing a sitting governor complain about politics being political. Mr. Ehrlich seems perfectly comfortable with his own flexing of incumbency's advantages, such as taxpayer-financed TV ads for the E-ZPass. But it's less amusing when Mr. Ehrlich starts describing Maryland's elections as if this were a banana republic and he is Jimmy Carter. Earlier this year, the governor vetoed several bills that would make it easier for people to vote (by allowing votes to be cast early, for instance), noting that "Maryland has a national reputation as a state with a rich history of voter fraud."

Pardon? What reputation is Mr. Ehrlich talking about? We'll concede a storied tradition of political corruption (Spiro Agnew springs to mind), but elections have been clean if not always well-run. In 1994, Republicans failed to prove a single fraudulent vote was cast in the hotly disputed contest (and subsequent lawsuit) between Parris N. Glendening and Ellen R. Sauerbrey. The combative Ms. Sauerbrey came off as paranoid and fared poorly in a 1998 rematch.

We suspect Maryland's electorate will survive just fine no matter when the primary is held. But if it is moved, we'd like it to stay put for at least another election or two. Incumbents, whether they are Democrats or Republicans, have enough tactical advantages. If an early date loosens their stranglehold on office, no doubt voters will be better served.

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