Reimagining how we elect our local officials…

7 minute read

October 1, 2020, 11:17 PM

There comes a point where you have to admit that a process is broken.  In this case, I have reached that conclusion with the way that we elect the county council and county executive in Montgomery County, Maryland.  Our current county executive, Marc Elrich, is the result of such a broken system.  Elrich is a real stinker in my book for a number of reasons, and I admit that I didn’t vote for him in the primary or the general election, because I saw his being a stinker from a mile away.

But this entry isn’t about Elrich specifically.  Rather, it’s about the process that brought him into office.  And ultimately, the problem is that Montgomery County is using a bipartisan process for electing its officials when the county is overwhelmingly one party – Democratic, in this instance.  The way that it works should be quite familiar to most of you: candidates of a given party run for office and compete in a primary election in the spring to determine who will be the nominee for the general election the following November, where all of the various parties’ nominees compete, and the winner of that contest takes office a few months later.  Many, if not most, jurisdictions use this to choose their elected officials.  However, it does depend to a large extent on having multiple viable political parties.  It starts to fall apart when one party completely dominates the process, and none of the other parties’ candidates have a snowball’s chance in hell of ever being elected.  In that case, the dominant party’s primary is the “real” election, and the general election is a formality.  In other words, the result is already a foregone conclusion after the primary is done.

This situation is not unique to Montgomery County by any means.  DC is similar, with the Democratic Party’s being the dominant political party over everything else to the point that the other parties don’t matter (save for an at-large council seat that is required to be a different party than the others), and the Democratic primary is generally considered to be the deciding contest for the mayoral race.

As I see it, the problem in Montgomery County is twofold.  First, Maryland has closed primaries.  Therefore, one can only vote in a primary if they have pre-registered in a certain party prior to said election.  Second, one only has to receive a plurality in the primary in order to advance to the general election.  In other words, a candidate only needs to have more votes than any other candidate, even if it doesn’t constitute a majority (i.e. greater than 50%) of the vote.

I have always opposed closed primaries, because it requires that one box themself in prior to an election.  Functionally, your party registration only exists to determine the primary that you will vote in because of the use of closed primaries.  Changing it requires going back to the state and redoing your voter registration (this can be done online at any time, and it can also be done at Motor Vehicles when renewing your license).  In Virginia, where I lived when I first started voting, they have open primaries.  Virginia doesn’t care what party you identify with, as they don’t collect information about a political party when you register to vote.  When you go to vote in a primary, you tell them at the voting site which party’s primary ballot you want, and that’s what they give you.  Which ballot you will get is not predetermined based on party.  In Virginia, if I wake up on primary day and decide that I want to vote in the Republican primary, that’s my prerogative.  I can go in, ask for that ballot, and go for it.  That is not the case in Maryland.  When I moved to Maryland in 2007, I made the mistake early on of registering as an independent, because I didn’t necessarily want to box myself into one party.  Having only known open primaries up to that point, I didn’t realize what I had done until much later, when I discovered that I was locked out of voting for any of my local officials in the “real” election because of the one-sided nature of the political system in Montgomery County.  After all, in Montgomery County, like DC and other cities, the prevailing wisdom is that if you are actually serious about getting elected and not just running for office for the attention, you had better run as a Democrat (this is the same idea behind why Bernie Sanders ran for president as a Democrat rather than under his traditional Independent label).  I later fixed this oversight on my part by changing my affiliation to Democratic.

The other problem, where it is only necessary to get a plurality in order to advance, is related to the way that Montgomery County is essentially ruled by one party, making the primary the deciding contest and the general election a formality.  It means that one can conceivably be elected with the support of relatively few voters.  In the most recent Democratic primary for county executive, it was a six-way race and broke down this way:

  • Marc Elrich: 37,532 (29.0%)
  • David Blair: 37,455 (29.0%)
  • Rose Krasnow: 19,644 (15.2%)
  • Roger Berliner: 16,710 (12.9%)
  • George L. Levanthal: 13,318 (10.3%)
  • Bill Frick: 4,687 (3.6%)

Note that Elrich won with only 29% of the vote.  That means that out of 129,346 people, 91,814 of them, i.e. almost 71 percent, voted in the primary for someone else who wasn’t Elrich.  Additionally, only 77 votes separated first and second place.  Clearly, every single vote mattered, with a margin that thin.  But that’s also no mandate for anyone, and with the field so diluted, you end up with an incumbent that doesn’t represent most of the people.

If I were to replace the current system with something else, it would be the Louisiana primary method, which is a kind of blanket primary.  Under such a system, all candidates for office run in the same primary, regardless of what their party affiliation (or lack thereof) is, and regardless of how many candidates are running from a given party.  In the case of Montgomery County, that would have led to a ballot with six Democrats, and one Republican (and before anyone thinks I’m trying to endorse the Republican or anything like that, remember that Robin Ficker couldn’t win a race for dogcatcher in MoCo, and even Republican governor Larry Hogan wouldn’t endorse Ficker).  For purposes of this discussion, I’m ignoring Nancy Floreen’s general election candidacy, because she joined the race after the primary was over, in what was essentially a last-ditch effort to keep Elrich from being elected after he won the primary (full disclosure: I voted for Floreen).

In any case, under such a primary system, all seven of the declared candidates would be on the ballot together.  If a candidate receives a majority (i.e. over 50%) of the votes, then the process ends, and that person is elected.  If no one receives a majority, the top two candidates advance to a runoff, and whoever wins in the runoff is elected.  Political party really doesn’t matter in these sorts of situations, because regardless of what label a candidate is running under, everyone is still running together in the same race, and the subsequent runoff election doesn’t care what parties the two finalists are in.  If a Democrat and a Republican end up as the top two candidates, great.  If it’s two Democrats, great.  If it’s two Republicans, fine.  Two independents?  Sure – but I’ll bet that the major parties wouldn’t be too happy about that.  In the case of Montgomery County, including Ficker’s counts from the Republican primary, where he ran unopposed (and assuming that everyone who voted for Ficker would still vote for him under a blanket primary), you would have ended up with Elrich and Blair as the top two candidates, and they would have advanced to a runoff, where, by virtue of there being only two candidates and no write-ins allowed, someone would get a majority come hell or high water, and that person would have gotten the support of the majority of the voters, which seems a win-win situation all around.  I don’t know who might have won if Blair were running against Elrich in a runoff instead of Ficker in the general election, but it’s a moot point now, because that election is over and done with.

So why did I decide on this particular system, and not something like ranked-choice voting or otherwise?  Because here, we need something that addresses and overcomes the one-party nature of Montgomery County politics.  A blanket primary addresses that.  We know that anyone who runs as a Republican in this county has no chance (Ficker only got 16% in the general election), so why bother going to the charade of running a separate primary for the GOP and having the general as a mere formality?  If it tells you my feelings on this, the guy ahead of me in line when Elyse and I voted in this particular primary was registered as a Republican, and therefore got the Republican ballot.  I really wanted to go up to him, pinch his little old-man cheeks and say, “You’re registered as a Republican?  How cute!  How does it feel to have no voice in your local government?” because the Republican primary in MoCo is a dead-end street as far as local races are concerned, because they will never win on account of the county’s being so heavily Democratic.  If you’re not a registered Democrat, you really aren’t worth a bucket of warm spit as far as local politicians go, because it’s the primary where they really get elected, rather than the general, and registered Republicans are locked out from voting in that primary because of their party registration.  Thus we end up with the idea of throwing Republicans and independents in with everyone else and opening the primary to all voters regardless of affiliation.  Make local government more accessible to all, and give no one the opportunity to (accidentally in my case) self-select out of the process.  That also would give the general election more consequence, since then it wouldn’t be a formality for the Democrat anymore, assuming, of course, that no candidate gets a majority in the primary.  If someone gets a majority, that person is elected, and the process is over, i.e. there is no election in November for that particular race because it’s already settled (and we don’t have to put up with any more campaigning for that race).  But it might have been interesting to see Blair run solely against Elrich from late June to early November.  After all, the two received almost the same number of votes.  And if Elrich would have still won, then so be it, but at least then he would have had the support of a majority of the voters in an election that actually meant something.  And no one would have to spend time, money, and effort on a longshot campaign past the primary stage, since they would be eliminated there and only the top two would advance.

Of course, I know better than to think that such a system would ever be implemented in Montgomery County, because it doesn’t serve the interests of the sitting officeholders.  Why should they advocate for and implement a change in the way that they are elected to office, when the existing system clearly is working just fine for them?  Such is what can be very frustrating about election methods, but there you go, I suppose.