ANNAPOLIS — The November election in Maryland was marked by long lines and confusion at some polls.
Today, state lawmakers and voting advocates want to ensure not only smoother elections in the future, but also the opportunity for more people to simply vote.
Del. Lily Qi (D-Montgomery County), an Asian American who immigrated from China and celebrated 30 years as a U.S. citizen Friday, Feb. 22, has proposed legislation to allow unaffiliated or independent voters to partake in future primary elections by allowing them to change their political affiliation to either Democrat or Republican.
“This country has given me so much,” said Qi (D-Montgomery County), who was elected in November. “Voting is one of those great Democratic processes. More immigrants here [in Maryland] should be allowed to vote anytime.”
According to documents Qi presented at her first bill hearing last week before the House Ways and Means Committee, unaffiliated voters in Maryland increased by 97 percent between 2002 and 2018. In comparison during that period, Democratic voters increased by 43 percent and Republicans by 24 percent.
In total, there are more than 700,000 unaffiliated voters in the state. For instance, Frederick County ranked number one with almost 24 percent of unaffiliated voters. Near the bottom sat Prince George’s County (12 percent), which has the highest number of Democrats in the state.
“This is a bill that is nonpartisan,” said Daniel Koroma, a member of the African Immigrant Caucus of Silver Spring who supports the legislation. “This is a bill that will make everybody enfranchised of their vote.”
Katherine Berry, election director in Carroll County, disagrees. Berry, who also serves as co-chair of the state’s Association of Election Officials, said the change could skew voter registration statistics and create problems at polling precincts to order ballots.
“If being able to change party affiliation is only opened to unaffiliated voters, we may be opening an unintended consequence of voters changing their party to unaffiliated just so they can choose which ballot they want in a primary election because it’s most convenient for them,” she said.
Alisha Alexander, elections administrator for Prince George’s, said in an email Thursday, Feb. 21 the legislation wouldn’t have a significant impact in the county.
“Since unaffiliated voters can currently vote in the Board of Education race, we’d just have to devise a formula to determine how many of them would vote using the Democratic and Republican ballots,” she said. “As a side note, an overwhelming majority of the unaffiliated voters who vote during the primary election vote a party ballot [provisionally].”
Qi said the state Board of Elections rejected nearly 4,300 provisional ballots from independent voters in last year’s primary election “due to people voting for wrong party ballot.”
The election board website says the deadlines for next year’s presidential election are April 7, 2020, for registering or changing party affiliation before the primary and Oct. 13 to register for the general election.
Some lawmakers such as Del. Kevin Hornberger (R-Cecil County) questioned why the state doesn’t just have open primaries altogether, a notion that Qi shot down.
The National Conference of State Legislatures list Maryland as one of nine states with closed primaries, which doesn’t allow unaffiliated voters to participate except to choose nonpartisan positions such as a school board candidate.
“An open primary is a very big move,” Qi said. “It is a major change our state isn’t ready for.”