Md. voters declare they're Independents

August 20, 2006|by TAMELA BAKER

ANNAPOLIS - Legendary Baltimore Sun pundit H.L. Mencken once said that "under democracy one party always devotes its chief energies to trying to prove that the other party is unfit to rule - and both commonly succeed, and are right."

Now, 50 years after Mencken's death, his home state is embroiled in perhaps the most vicious party warfare in memory. Partisan polarization in Maryland is high, said Herbert Smith, a political science professor at McDaniel College in Westminster, Md.

"You'd have to go back to the Civil War" to find a more contentious political climate in Maryland, he said.

As the days dwindle before this year's primary election, voters can expect the volleys between Republicans and Democrats to continue, and to grow more strident - particularly in the race between Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich and the de facto Democratic gubernatorial nominee, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley.

If voter registration numbers from the Maryland Board of Elections are an indicator, more and more voters are saying a pox on both their houses - they're registering independent.


Maryland traditionally has been a Democratic state, and Democrats still command a nearly two-to-one edge over Republicans statewide. But since 2002, the last gubernatorial election year, the fastest growing voting group in Maryland is the number of voters declining to join either major political party.

Independent streak

Since the 2002 gubernatorial election, the Democrats have posted a net gain of 130,745 statewide as of June 30, according to election board statistics. That's an increase of about 8.3 percent. Republicans posted a net gain of 60,554 during that period, for an increase of 7.2 percent.

Unaffiliated voters, still vastly outnumbered by both parties, added more to their ranks than Republicans with a net gain of 74,661. Their rate of growth outpaced both parties, with an increase of 20.5 percent - more than double the Democrats' rate.

In Washington County, where Republicans have outnumbered Democrats for about 10 years, the Democrats posted a net gain of 1,350 voters since 2002, for an increase of 4.7 percent. Republicans gained 3,958 new voters, an increase of 12.4 percent. The net gain of unaffiliated voters is 2,167, for an increase of 24.5 percent.

Just during the first six months of this year, the Democrats have gained 34 voters and the Republicans gained 172. But the ranks of independent voters have swollen by 227.

"I think that's been the trend for a few elections," Washington County Election Director Dorothy Kaetzel said. Although she said she rarely hears personally from new registrants, she speculated that so many are signing up as independents because "a lot of people don't even worry about voting in the primary, and that's when (party affiliation) matters."

Or, she said, "maybe they just can't make up their minds."

It's a bit early to draw too many conclusions about the growing roster of independent voters in Maryland, Smith said. The percentage of independent voters in Maryland still hovers around 15 percent, and "15 percent is low when you compare it to Connecticut, where it's 42 percent," he said.

While the number of independents is increasing, 85 percent of Maryland voters still are signing up with some political party, Smith added.

"It's not the death knell of political parties," he said.

Smith said he knew of no study yet of independent voters in Maryland, but said independent voting might be attributed to the decline of party organizations, the fact that more Americans are going to college - and the perception that neither major party has all of the answers.

Because most of Maryland's independent voters are registered in Montgomery, Prince George's and Howard counties, Smith said the presumption is that "a considerable number are government employees."

Those three counties also rank among the most affluent and educated in the state, however, which Smith said counters studies nationally that suggest independent voters "are less educated and less interested" in politics.

Smith said there's no definitive answer yet about whether the fierce partisanship in Maryland politics has provoked voters to turn their backs on both parties.

"That could be part of it," he said, but added, "you're asking for an academic answer, and there haven't been any studies that I know of."

Party favors

Despite the rise in independent voters, Democrats enjoyed a surge of new registrants in May and June. And the gap between Maryland Democrats and Republicans, once thought to be narrowing, has widened. Democrats have gained nearly 5,000 voters since last year, but according to registration records, Republicans have had a net loss of almost 2,000 as of June 30.

Some Republicans are undaunted, however, and view the boost in unaffiliated voters as an advantage.

Noting that Maryland historically has been a Democratic state, "we see it as a good sign," said Erik Robey, first vice chairman of the Maryland Republican Party.

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