A buffer against extremism: open primaries and ranked-choice voting.

Here’s why Maryland needs them.

Larry Williams for the Baltimore Sun

A multitude of recent opinion pieces reflect the concerns we have about the ability of our elections to accurately represent public choices. Charges of election fraud and electoral manipulation abound. There is the fear that state legislatures will overrule the popular vote. Baseless conspiracy theories have been pushed and accepted by a large portion of the population. Politicians foster fear of the opposition rather than offering their vision for the future. Disaster is prophesied should the opposing party gain power.


Amid all this, one thing is indisputable: A large number of our elected officials are more interested in gaining (or holding onto) power than in representing the people who elected them.

Whether we prefer one party or the other, we probably agree that politicians, traditional media and the ubiquitous social media are guilty of the spread of misinformation, bias and outright lies. So, we read massive amounts of indignation directed at radical behavior, but little is suggested as a buffer against it.


So, what can be done? There are a number of ideas about how we can better elect politicians who make a commitment to serve.


And, there are a couple, I believe, that can contribute to creating a less contentious and more productive government. Let us move to open primaries and rank-order voting.

Open primaries are where any qualified elector can cast a vote for the candidate of any party. One doesn’t have to be a “registered” Democrat or Republican in order to vote. The top vote recipients then compete in the general election. In order to “win” a primary, candidates would need to appeal to a broader section of the electorate rather than the radical fringe of their party. It would also permit voters to indicate a preference for a Democrat for mayor and a Republican for governor and a Green Party candidate for attorney general at the primary stage of voting.


Rank-order voting permits a voter’s second or third choice to be considered in an election until a candidate gains 50% plus 1 of the total votes cast. Consider the last Baltimore City mayoral race where the current Democratic mayor received 29.6% of the votes in the Democratic primary. In a city where the Democratic primary winner is all but assured of winning the general election, 70.4% of Democrats voted for someone else. The Republican primary only mustered 5,608 total mayoral votes (less than 4% of the primary votes for that office).


Rank-order voting would be a boon to third party candidates, who would arguably make a stronger showing if voters knew that voting for them as a “first choice” (or any lesser choice) didn’t mean that they were wasting their vote. Perhaps a chance to vote for whom you want instead of the lesser of evils would let candidates know how the voters really feel.


These suggestions are, of course, simplistic. There are critical details to be worked out to make these reforms work smoothly. Safeguards would need to be created to ensure that the system can’t be gamed in the way some past primaries were when Democratic PACs have advocated for Republican candidates with extreme positions because they believed those candidates would be easier to defeat in the general election. Past elections have also had candidates running for the sole purpose of siphoning votes from a (usually more moderate) candidate and thereby diluting the percentage of votes received by either candidate. In a “plurality winner” system such as we currently have, this tactic can advance the less popular candidate. Fortunately, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Other states are using these processes. Their experiences can guide us.


I have seen claims that the rank-order system and open primaries would be unlikely to change final election results. I’m skeptical. However, even if outcomes did not change, adopting these process changes would increase public faith in the system and would invite greater participation in primaries. To my mind, that is enough to justify doing it.


Larry Williams (larrydwilliams333@gmail.com) is a retired Architect living in Towson. He is a registered Democrat.