By Bill Thompson and Kristina M. Schurr
ANNAPOLIS – Maryland voters are increasingly rejecting the two major parties when registering and are more willing to vote for minor parties at the polls, State Administrative Board of Election Law data show.
From 1988 to 1996, the numbers of those registering in a minor party or as independents jumped by 55.5 percent, or 104,868 voters.
By comparison, registered Democrats increased by 35,538, or 2.4 percent during the same period. Republican ranks rose by 137,491, or 21.5 percent.
And while Maryland votes cast for minor-party presidential candidates peaked in 1992, the 1996 election still represented a significant increase in such votes over 1988 – nearly 1,000 percent.
Those were among the findings of a Capital News Service computer analysis of registration and voting patterns in all 23 counties and Baltimore City. The analysis, which examined the presidential elections in 1988, 1992 and 1996, also found that:
* In every Maryland jurisdiction, growth in independent and third-party registrations has outraced the growth of the voting age population.
* While urban and suburban areas have the greatest numbers of independent and minor-party registrations, growth has been sharpest in rural regions.
* Across the state, increases in independent or minor-party registrations have meant more votes for minor-party candidates at the ballot box.
Minor parties in Maryland are seeing a boom despite ballot access laws that critics call the second-most restrictive in the nation. The General Assembly is almost certain to take up reforms during the session that begins Jan. 8 (see sidebar).
Analysts see voter disaffection in the trends.
“Many people are dissatisfied with what the two major political parties are offering. Instead of trying to fit themselves and their grievances under the two-party system, they turn to a third party,” said James Gimpel, assistant professor of political science at the University of Maryland, College Park.
Added Allan Lichtman, history professor at American University:
“People primarily vote for a third party when they either are registering dissatisfaction with major political parties and the existing political system, or they are attracted to the particular personalities and issues of the third parties.”
And Benjamin Ginsberg, professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University, called minor parties the “issue entrepreneurs in American politics.”
“They get support if they have an interesting issue not discussed by major parties,” Ginsberg said.
Marylanders not only are turning in greater numbers to minor parties, they have more such parties from which to choose.
In 1988, 1,017 state residents registered to vote in the Libertarian and Alliance parties, the only parties on the ballot outside the major ones.
Eight years later, there were four recognized alternatives to the Democrats or Republicans – Libertarian, Reform, Taxpayers and Natural Law parties, which combined claimed 4,562 members.
Ralph Nader’s Green Party was not on the ballot in Maryland because organizers had gathered only about 4,000 of the 10,000 required signatures. Hence, election officials did not keep a count of the Greens.
In terms of sheer numbers of new minor-party and independent registrations, Greater Baltimore – encompassing the city as well as Baltimore, Harford, Carroll, Anne Arundel and Howard counties – led the state, adding 44,015 between 1988 and 1996.
Next were the Washington suburban counties, Montgomery and Prince George’s, which added 32,495.
But the rate of growth was highest in Maryland’s three rural regions.
Southern Maryland saw an increase of 105.6 percent, or 7,526 voters, followed by the Eastern Shore at 97.6 percent (10,138 voters) and Western Maryland at 88.6 percent (10,694 voters).
By contrast, growth in the Greater Baltimore area was 59.6 percent – 4.1 points above the state average. In the Washington, D.C., suburbs, growth in independent and minor party registrations was 38 percent.
And everywhere in Maryland, independent and minor party registrations marked sharper increases than measures of the voting age population.
According to U.S. Census Bureau figures for 1994, the most recent available, the number of Marylanders of voting age had grown by 7.7 percent since 1988. Regional increases varied – from a low of 4.5 percent in Greater Baltimore to a high of 14.9 percent in Southern Maryland.
Meanwhile, changes in voting patterns generally followed those in registrations.
In the 1996 election, 8 percent of voting Marylanders – 130,522 – supported someone other than the Democrat or the Republican candidate.
That was down from 15 percent, or 288,915, in 1992 – a peak analysts attribute to the Ross Perot phenomenon.
“Perot in 1992 was so popular because he was a new and fresh personality, promoting some issues people cared about,” said American University’s Lichtman.
But 1996’s minor-party share of the total vote was up significantly from 1988, when less than 1 percent of the state’s participating voters – 11,887 – cast their ballots for minor- party candidates.
Measured another way, between 1988 and 1996, the number of votes statewide for minor-party candidates increased 998 percent. At the same time, votes for Democrats rose 12 percent and votes for Republicans dropped 22 percent.
Across the state, growth in voting for minor-party candidates exceeded growth in registrations as independents or minor-party affiliates.
Between 1988 and 1996, the sharpest growth in minor-party voting occurred on the Eastern Shore – an increase of 2,333 percent, or 12,854 votes.
Southern Maryland and Western Maryland followed closely, with increases of 2,321 percent (6,196 votes) and 1,623 percent (13,085 votes) respectively.
Minor-party voting in Greater Baltimore grew 1,008 percent – by 62,733 votes – while in the Washington, D.C., suburbs it grew 589 percent – 23,767 votes.
Even so, analysts are divided over whether minor parties will maintain their momentum. Choosing to register as other than Democrat or Republican does not mean voters will always support a minor-party candidate at the polls, experts said.
“There is a nationwide trend toward more and more voter independence, but a lot of people who claim to be independent really favor one party over another … and are pretty loyal in terms of actual voting,” Ginsberg, of Hopkins, said.
“People say they’re independent because we’re taught to be judicious and discriminating. There is more rhetorical than real independence in Maryland,” he added.
Lee Sigelman, chairman of the political science department at George Washington University, said he does not anticipate a minor party gaining major political influence anytime soon.
“I don’t see Americans lining up behind third parties. But given the widespread disenchantment with the two major parties, it’s still not clear where the system is going,” Sigelman said. To Lichtman, the rising numbers of voters refusing to affiliate with the Democrats or Republicans “indicates a weakness of party structure and the less closely attached people are to major parties.” –30–