Democrats have revived talk of pushing up the date for Maryland's 2006 primary elections, saying they need to prevent a withering intraparty battle from draining the eventual nominee of resources needed to face Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch (Anne Arundel) and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (Calvert) say they are working on an expansive Voter's Bill of Rights, to be introduced when the General Assembly convenes in January, that could include a provision to move the primary from September to June.
Many Democrats believe that would help Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, who are competing for the Democratic nomination, as well as the candidates who have joined what could be a crowded and bruising U.S. Senate primary.
Under the current schedule, a Sept. 12 primary would leave just eight weeks for a general election campaign. Many Democrats have fretted that a late primary would put them at a disadvantage if Ehrlich runs unopposed for governor, as expected, and Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele becomes the GOP's consensus choice for the open Senate seat.
"I am concerned that [the Democratic candidates are] going to waste all their resources on each other, and when it comes time to go up against Ehrlich's $20 million, that one of the two will be shellshocked with no resources," Miller said.
Discussions about changing the campaign calendar surfaced this year but quieted after the idea encountered resistance not only from Republicans but also from state lawmakers who feared that it would hinder their reelection efforts.
Among those voicing reservations was Busch, who questioned whether it was fair to change the schedule so close to an election. Though Busch remains hesitant, he said it warrants further discussion. "I think you'd want to look at when other states hold primaries, at what's a reasonable amount of time for people to vet out their candidates, and what's a fair amount of time for a general election," he said. "Nothing has been locked in stone."
Busch said he expects the House Ways and Means Committee to hold hearings in advance of the 2006 legislative session to consider those questions, along with a range of other voters' rights provisions that might be in a finished bill.
Packaging the primary switch with other election law changes could tamp down some opposition, at least from Democrats, who could benefit from provisions designed to increase voter turnout. Those include allowing ballots to be cast days before the election, lifting restrictions on convicts who have served their sentences and increasing polling on college campuses. In a state where Democratic voters outnumber Republicans almost 2 to 1, increased participation disproportionately benefits Democrats.
Ways and Means Chairman Sheila E. Hixson (D-Montgomery) said this week that she has worked with the Maryland Democratic Party to draft the voting bill but that the committee has not considered including the primary date switch.
Hixson remained skeptical about its prospects, saying she would first need to hear from state election officials about the feasibility of moving the primary to June. "I know the board of elections has had concerns about getting the primary organized that fast," Hixson said.
Republicans are likely to mount an aggressive fight against any primary date change, said Henry Fawell, an Ehrlich spokesman. He noted that Virginia's gubernatorial primary in June drew fewer than 7 percent of registered voters, offering powerful evidence that moving Maryland's date would hurt turnout. During the past four election cycles, Maryland's September primaries have drawn 28.6 percent to 39.6 percent of voters.
"Early primaries are abysmal," Fawell said. "Governor Ehrlich believes we should encourage voter turnout, not change the rules to stifle voter turnout."