Twenty-five thousand.

That’s the magic number of votes, thereabouts, that one of the 22 Democrats running for Congress in the 3rd District needs to collect by 8 p.m. on May 14 to be the presumptive winner. Not just in the primary. In November.

The rest of us are just passengers on this train bound for Washington. So, as early voting continues through Thursday, I find myself wondering if there isn’t a better way.

Maybe, just maybe, it’s ranked choice voting.

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“Voters have more power with ranked choice voting, and it is more likely to have a consensus candidate,” said Cynthia Richie Terrell, executive director of Ranked Choice Voting Maryland, a group created to advance this idea.

Maryland is one of 30 states with closed primary elections, where only registered Democrats and Republicans can vote in their respective party primaries. Nonpartisan school board races are an exception. Other than that, it’s winner-take-all, with no need to get more than 50% of the vote.

Theoretically, each party picks the candidate with the best chance of winning. In reality, these prelims give the decision to a small number of highly partisan voters.

In a district where registration favors one party as much as it does in the 3rd — 248,402 Democrats, 150,277 Republicans and 84,246 independents — older, white Democrats in Howard and Anne Arundel counties will pick the next member of Congress.

Sometimes this system works. Democrat Wes Moore didn’t win a majority in his party’s gubernatorial primary in 2022, but scored a landslide in the general election with 65% of the vote.

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Sometimes it doesn’t. His Republican opponent was Dan Cox, an extremist who benefited from a fractured party.

Ranked choice voting could flip this. Voters would rank candidates as their first, second and third choices. The number could be greater, but let’s keep the example simple.

If your first choice doesn’t make the top three and there is no majority winner, your second choice gets your vote. The lowest-scoring candidates get knocked out in each round of counting, and recounting continues until somebody gets above 50%.

It might be just the thing to make sense of the messy 3rd and 6th District congressional races in Maryland.

U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes opted not to run again in the 3rd and U.S. Rep. David Trone is not seeking reelection in the 6th District in order to pursue a U.S. Senate seat. Those decisions opened clown-car pileups of epic proportions.

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I’ve met most of the Democrats running in the 3rd, and some are decent, smart people. Others are making a statement, clueless or, worst of all, running in hopes of benefiting from the campaign.

In addition to those 22 Democrats, nine Republicans want to represent voters in a district that stretches north from Annapolis across half of Anne Arundel County and takes in all of Howard County and a sliver of Carroll.

Over in the 6th, 15 Democrats and seven Republicans want the seat for part of Montgomery County and all of Western Maryland.

Candidates sat at a long table covered by a white cloth inside the Eastport United Methodist Church on April 17, creating a tableau the pastor admitted looked unexpectedly like the last supper.
Candidates for the open 3rd District congressional seat gather for a forum inside the Eastport United Methodist Church on April 17, 2024. (Rick Hutzell)

Ranked choice voting has been in the news. It was in 62 jurisdictions two years ago, perhaps getting no greater attention than in the 2019 mayor’s race in New York City.

Closer to home, advocates have been pushing for it in Montgomery County, Maryland’s largest jurisdiction. But that would require state approval, and a state Senate committee let it die an ignoble death this year.

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“It’s ebbed and waned, grown and expanded,” Terrell said.

Democrats have controlled the General Assembly since before the Civil War, and there’s no incentive for change with that kind of hot streak. Republicans aren’t behind this idea because, well, they tend not to trust any change to voting — they’d rather lose than switch.

Yet the idea keeps chugging along. On Tuesday, a paid organizer for Ranked Choice Voting Maryland will lead a meetup of supporters in Annapolis.

I asked Terrell if there was some evil villain behind the idea with an endgame I can’t see. She laughed.

“If you have evidence of that, I would want to know.”

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Ranked Choice Voting Maryland just got its nonprofit certification, but according to Terrell, it has yet to receive any contributions.

Instead, it is one of several like-minded groups funded by Unite America, including FairVote, the Campaign Legal Center, the Ranked Voting Resource Center, and RepresentWomen. Founded in 2015 by journalist Charles Wheelan as an advocate for centrist change, this group’s board members are varied establishment figures.

Kathryn Murdoch, the daughter-in-law of conservative media mogul Rupert Murdoch, and Mike Merrill, founder of the game design firm Riot Games, are co-chairs.

She’s married to James Murdoch, the younger son who gave up his board seat over reported disagreements over editorial decisions. Merrill has been described as a supporter of “left-leaning campaign regulations and liberal political candidates.”

So, there is an organized effort. Does that mean it’s less valuable?

If it were in place today, the 3rd District primary might play out like this.

There are two front-runners, Harry Dunn and Sarah Elfreth. Dunn is a former U.S. Capitol Police officer who gained national prominence for his actions defending the complex during the insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021.

He put former President Donald Trump at the center of his pitch. Trump has made no secret that if he wins in November, he will act as a dictator on “Day One,” closing the borders and seeking “retribution” against his enemies.

Elfreth has a reputation as an effective state senator focused on issues such as the Chesapeake Bay, climate change and reproductive rights. She’s won some key endorsements from party figures and influential unions.

She’s almost as quick as Dunn to condemn the former president and plans to spend time in Pennsylvania campaigning for President Joe Biden. She says fixing a broken Washington is one reason she decided to run.

“As kind of naive as it seems and sounds, Congress isn’t gonna get any better unless good people run,” she said.

Ask Dunn about the district, and his response has evolved. He doesn’t live here, and until recently his campaign shielded him from questions about broader issues. Now, he talks about reproductive rights, public safety and other topics beyond threats to democracy.

“I’m from Maryland, too,” he told me recently.

U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes speaks at Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks’ meet-and-greet at the Owen Brown Interfaith Center in Columbia on Saturday, Feb. 3, 2024. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

Neither of them is likely to win more than 50% of the vote. There are just too many candidates, some of whom have a considerable following.

If ranked choice voting were in place, supporters of fringe candidates — who probably know their favorite has no real chance — would see their second choices take effect as the lowest-performing candidates get eliminated. Those votes would most likely pass to Elfreth and Dunn or the candidates just behind them in popularity. Votes would get recalculated until someone wins.

Instead, this election will likely go like this.

Elfreth and the other four state lawmakers in the race bring their own network of supporters. Dunn will motivate Democrats who share his concerns about Trump above all other issues.

Voters aren’t stupid, usually. There are undoubtedly independents and even Republicans who have moved under a Democratic flag of convenience for the sole purpose of having a say in this race.

But the district is so overwhelmingly Democratic that the winner is likely to manifest some element of that personality. The question is, which one?

Will fear of Trump win or a desire for someone who knows the district?

Ranked choice voting seems like a great idea, but only in theory. We have to use the tools we have today.

So, if you’re eligible, go vote. I can’t wait to see who you pick.

Rick Hutzell is the Annapolis columnist for The Baltimore Banner. He writes about what's happening today, how we got here and where we're going next. The former editor of Capital Gazette, he led the newspaper to a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the 2018 mass shooting in its newsroom.

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