As the table shows, Democrats hold a 56% to 26.6% registration advantage over Republicans. But the table shows two other important things often overlooked in a discussion of Maryland politics 1) though Democrats outnumber Republicans they still make up only 56% of all voters and 2) Independent or Unaffiliated voters make up a sizable chunk of the state's electorate.
Let's stay for moment with that 56% figure. As the majority party, it makes sense that Democrats would hold all or most (in fact all) statewide offices - Governor, Comptroller, Attorney General, both U.S. Senators. But regional offices should be a bit more competitive - still the Democrats hold 6 of 8 seats in the state's Congressional delegation (75%), 98 of the 141 seats in the House of Delegates (70%), and 35 of the 47 seats in the state Senate (75%). This is a pretty impressive accomplishment for a party that lays claim to only 56% of voters.
There are two possible explanations for this impressive hold on offices within the state 1) Independent and Republican voters actually vote for Democrats or 2) Maryland's 8 Congressional and 47 legislative districts have been gerrymandered such that Democrats are able to outperform their actual voter registration advantage.
So how do those Independent and Unaffiliated voters vote? Below is a table with election results and voter turnout for a selection of Maryland elections dating back to 2004. Included are the 2004 and 2008 presidential election, the 2010 gubernatorial election, and the results form the 2010 election in Maryland's 2nd and 5th Congressional districts. Included are the total votes received by the Republican and Democratic candidate as well as the total votes cast by Democrats, Republicans, and Independent/Unaffiliated voters.
Almost immediately you see that we can throw out explanation 1 (that Independent and Republican voters vote for Democrats). In nearly every election included in the table (and in nearly every election in Maryland) the Democratic candidate receives a vote total either just above, or in some cases just below, the total number of Democrats who voted in the election.
But look at the tallies for Republican candidates, in each election the Republican candidate received substantially more votes than there were Republicans voting. In 2004, George W. Bush received 1.024 million votes, yet only 733,000 Republicans voted. In 2010, Bob Ehrlich received 776,000 votes when only 578,000 Republicans voted. By way of contrast, O'Malley received 1.044 million votes which was 29,000 votes fewer than the total number of Democrats who cast ballots. Even in Congressional districts, Republicans outperform their partisan turnout.
What's going on? Simple, Independent/Unaffiliated voters overwhelmingly vote for Republican candidates, regardless of the office and regardless of turnout. To be fair, in every election some Republicans do vote Democrat and some Democrats do vote Republican (but most studies show that only abut 10% of voters cross party lines when voting). Republicans candidates in Maryland consistently outperform their share of registered voters casting ballots. In the 2004 presidential contest and the 2010 gubernatorial race I estimate that Republicans claimed the support nearly all Independent/Unaffiliated voters (in all likelihood Republicans actually won quite a few Democrats and O'Malley received more than 1.2% of Independents - but it all comes out in the wash). In 2004 68% of Independents turned out, but only 35% turned out in 2010 - yet they still broke for the Republican by similar margins.
2004 and 2010 may be poor examples. Bush was an incumbent president and Ehrlich a former governor. So I included the 2008 presidential election and two Congressional elections from 2010, each with an incumbent Democrat. Turn out by Independents in 2008 was similar to 2004 and turnout in the two Congressional districts was essentially the same as the 2010 statewide turnout. In the three elections covered Democrats outperformed Democratic turnout in 2 of the 3. In the Presidential election and in the 5th Congressional district race I estimate that Democrats carried 22% to 24% of the Independent vote. Republicans picked up between 59% and 70% of the Independent vote.
In Maryland, regardless of the election, Independent voters break heavily toward the GOP. This rather consistent support for GOP candidates suggests that Republicans actually claim a larger share of Maryland's voters than registration number suggest. Averaging the elections highlighted above (and placing a greater weight on higher turnout elections) suggests that Republicans receive about 77% of the Independent vote, Democrats about 6% and the remainder actually goes to third party candidates.
The table below shows an alternate breakdown of each party's effective partisan strength in the state if we were to reallocate Independent voters according actual election results.
Democrats gain very little and remain at 57% of the electorate, Republicans see there share of the electorate jump from 26.6% to 38.6% and true Independent voters dwindle (yes we are a lonely few).
So how do Democrats hold 75% of Congressional seats, 70% of the seats in the House of Delegates, and 75% of the seats in the state Senate?
It's called gerrymandering folks...
Gerrymandering is the process by which a political party draws district lines not to represent the interests of the people, but rather to represent the interests of the party. By drawing the 6th and 1st district such that registered Republican and Republican leaning Independent voters are packed into those districts the remaining districts contain more Democrats. Republicans in Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Harford county are sliced across multiple districts to dilute their influence and excess Democrats in Baltimore City, Prince Georges, and Montgomery county are spread across multiple districts to boost Democratic prospects.
The same process is applied to the state's legislative districts. What's up with 2C, 3A, 37A - easy, they each create Democratic districts in the midst of otherwise Republican areas (and before someone thinks to remind me that the state's legislative districts were "redrawn" by the courts, I would remind you that the changes made by the court were miniscule).
And this process is not unique to Maryland or to Democrats - one look at the map of Legislative and Congressional districts in Texas and it's easy to see why state Democrats fled the state in 2003 to try and stop the proposed map.
After my column supporting the Republican's proposed map was published I was accused of being a partisan out to boost the Republican party - this simply is not the case. I am among the 2.5% of truly Independent voters in Maryland (this was not always the case, I was once a very partisan fellow, but years of studying American politics made me realize the damage that hyperpartisanship has done to our system). I tend to be a pretty liberal person, but I really dislike ideologues and both major parties. Above all, what I care about is a process that respects voters and the true political diversity of a state. When Democrats or Republicans abuse the process to boost their numbers the voters suffer, the concept of representation suffers.
My goal is not more Democrats or more Republicans, my goal is a state where the people are truly represented, not a state where one party can artificially create a partisan advantage simply by drawing lines... Maryland has been a leader in environmental legislation and health care reform, can we now be a leader in moving toward non-partisan redistricting? What a wonderful legacy that would be for Governor O'Malley.