Independents trade primary for unaligned voice in Nov.

Nearly half-million shun allegiance to either party

September 11, 2006|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,sun reporter

But tomorrow, she — Mona Brinegar of Ellicott City is the kind of voter whom candidates fight over: aware of the issues, politically involved and willing to go to the polls on Election Day.

But tomorrow, she - along with hundreds of thousand of other independent voters - will have to sit out Maryland's primary elections, which are open only to registered Democrats or Republicans.

Voters like Brinegar who choose to register as "unaffiliated" make up the fastest-growing segment of the electorate - up 11 percent in the past two years, and nearly a half-million strong - in a state that is among dozens with what are known as "closed primaries."

As might be expected from a group of voters who pride themselves on independent thinking, the closed primary system draws a variety of responses, from indifference to cynicism to outrage. A few years ago, a lawsuit even questioned the inclusion of nonpartisan judges in closed primaries.

"Those of us sitting on the sidelines are powerless," says an angry Brinegar, who doesn't like to watch as candidates who might appeal to independents are "whittled away by party politics that we don't support."

But Shelley Greenhouse of Annapolis said she chose to be an independent in order to avoid the partisan politics that she finds distasteful.

"I sort of watch all the infighting and just wait patiently to see who is going to sift out," said Greenhouse, 50, who is often drawn to third-party candidates. "The [primary] process is so perfunctory. ... It's not like you're really picking someone who might make a difference. The people who might make a difference aren't even found by the party."

As of July, 429,379 Marylanders had checked off "unaffiliated" on their voter registrations.

Many of those voters know that primaries belong to the two major parties. But the high stakes of those primaries - particularly in races where candidates face little or no challenge from outside their party - can make it difficult to accept. Maryland is one of 27 states with closed primaries, according to the latest research by FairVote: The Center for Voting and Democracy, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group based in Takoma Park.

But getting a firm handle on the number of states with closed or open primaries can be difficult, since many states - including Maryland - allow parties to set the rules on primaries, which can vary widely.

Some states have open primaries for one party but not for another. Some states ask people to vote in the same party as they did in the last primary (and some of those rules are loosely enforced). In Washington, a popular "blanket primary," in which all voters received a ballot with all the candidates, was struck down by the courts.

In Maryland, unaffiliated voters may not vote in party primaries, but are eligible to vote in nonpartisan primaries in their jurisdictions, such as for local school board races, according to the State Board of Elections.

The Maryland Republican Party opened its primary to unaffiliated voters in 2000 - and then closed it again after that year.

"It was really a way to get independent voters, and they didn't come to the primary, and turnout remained the same," said Audra Miller, a spokeswoman for the party. The idea "in theory, is admirable," she said. "In practice, it puts an extraordinary burden on the candidates ... to identify likely voters and get their message out."

The Maryland Democratic Party does not plan to open its primary anytime soon. Spokesman David Paulson said that while increasing voter participation is a "healthy argument," it does not outweigh the party's position that "in order to decide who the party candidate should be, you should be a Democrat."

Donald F. Norris, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, said in some cases opponents of a party have used open primaries to vote for weak or unpopular candidates in an attempt to undermine the organization.

"It is not in the interest of political parties to have open primaries," he said. "People who are not adherents would then vote in that primary."

He added: "Anybody who wants to vote in a primary can remedy that by changing their registration."

That is not an appealing option to Elaine Tofil, 70, of Columbia.

"I'd rather be an independent," she said. "I just refuse to have anything to do with either party. I think I'm in the middle, which I think most people are."

She will be at her local polling place tomorrow to serve as an election judge. But she understands that being a registered independent - for 47 years - means no "I Voted" sticker for her.

"I think it would be nice if they let independents vote," said Tofil, who voted when the Republican primary was open. "But normally the primaries don't make that big of a difference.."

But Laura Grier, 49, of Baltimore called her exclusion from the primaries one of her "big pet peeves."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.