Credit: Courtesy Photo of Phil Andrews

Reflecting on the anemic turnout both in Montgomery County and statewide in this week’s primary, County Councilmember Phil Andrews Thursday suggested a move to a so-called open primary system – such as the one currently in place in California – as a way to boost participation among the voting public.

His comments came amid increasing discussion — and angst — within local political circles in the wake of a primary election in which overall statewide turnout came in at 22 percent, barely half of what it was two decades ago. In Montgomery County, the picture was even bleaker, with an overall turnout of about 16 percent, including roughly 23 percent among the dominant Democratic Party electorate. “I think there is a lot of soul-searching going on among a lot of Democratic officials right now about what to do to change this,” Andrews said.

“Given the abysmal turnout in now at least two straight elections over a four-year period, elected officials ought to be open to some dramatic change to address voter turnout,” Andrews added in an interview, during which he also reflected on his unsuccessful bid for the Democratic county executive nomination. “A primary like the approach California has results in higher turnout, and encourages candidates to appeal to the broadest number of people.” The approach used in California as well as Louisiana and Washington State, known as a nonpartisan blanket primary, involves candidates from all parties competing — with the two highest finishers advancing to a runoff. It is open to independent voters as well as those registered in political parties.

Andrews acknowledged that, if Montgomery County’s sizable contingent of independent – or “unaffiliated” – voters had been allowed to participate in this week’s primary, it would “probably” have given a boost to his campaign that focused on fiscal restraint and political reform. But he said he has made no decisions about his professional or political future, while pointedly not ruling out another run for county executive.

“It’s very much up in the air as to whether I run again or not,” said the 54-year old Andrews, “but I don’t have any plans to at this point.” The county executive post is expected to be up for grabs in 2018: Incumbent Ike Leggett, likely to coast to a third term in the wake of his primary victory Tuesday, turns 69 next month, and had originally planned to leave office this year after serving two terms. (Andrews, who said he plans to formally endorse Leggett in the general election, had what he described as a “very nice conversation” Thursday with his erstwhile opponent.)

Andrews does have some plans for the near-term: In the less than six months remaining in his tenure on the council, he will push to ensure his proposal to create a system of voluntary public financing for county executive and County Council elections is enacted into law. Under Andrews’ legislation – which is co-sponsored by all of his council colleagues – candidates who raise a limited amount of “seed money” would then have small donations to their campaigns matched by public funds. To receive public funding, they would have to abide by a limit of $150 on individual private contributions, with donations from corporations or political action committees not allowed.

Besides making the process affordable to a larger pool of candidates, Andrews also believes public financing will boost voter participation by prompting office seekers to raise a larger number of donations in small amounts. “It would give candidates an incentive to go out  and get more people involved in their campaigns,” said Andrews, who hopes the legislation will be further debated in committee next month or in September, with a vote of the full council coming this fall.

Was his thinly financed campaign for county executive – in which Andrews declined to accept contributions from developers or organized political interests – an obstacle to his success this year?

“I’m not sure,” said Andrews, who was unable to mount a TV ad effort as his two competitors, Leggett and former County Executive Doug Duncan, were running 30-second spots on local cable systems in the closing weeks of the campaign. “The only thing we didn’t do that the others did was that they had the TV ads….It’s hard to say whether TV would have made much of a difference or not.”

He said he is awaiting today’s release of precinct-by-precinct vote breakdowns to better gauge what worked – and what didn’t – in the campaign, in which his winning 22 percent of the vote exceeded the expectations of many political insiders.

There’s a lot of analysis I’m going to be doing to look at the effectiveness of the different strategies that we used. I’m interested as someone who has a background in political science in what works in campaigns, especially what works in my own campaigns,” said Andrews, who holds a master’s degree in governmental administration from the University of Pennsylvania. He earned the latter before first running for County Council 20 years ago, while serving as director of the Maryland state chapter of Common Cause, which advocates for reforms in campaign finance and other aspects of the political process.

While the number of registered Democrats in Montgomery County has jumped by about 10 percent – to more than 354,000 – in the past four years, even as the number of Republicans has remained stagnant at about 122,000, the percentage of unaffiliated voters in the county electorate has skyrocketed. The number of such independent voters has jumped to more than 147,000, an increase of nearly 25 percent in just four years.

Anecdotal evidence from surveys indicates these independent voters are highly educated, socially progressive, and generally supportive of government programs but also open to messages of fiscal restraint – such as the one Andrews preached in this year’s primary campaign.

Because this pool of unaffiliated voters is considerably larger than the roughly 81,000 Democrats who turned out in Tuesday’s primary, Bethesda-based independent public opinion analyst Keith Haller suggested it “would cause a sea change” in local politics if the primary system was modified to allow their participation.

“It would greatly change the way local campaigns are run for executive and for council,” Haller observed. “It would change the [political] dynamic…and it might also change the way the council does business, if they knew they had to communicate to a broader audience.”