Partisanship, Confusion Lead 1st District Voters to Back Noncandidate

Capital News Service

WASHINGTON — Rep. Andy Harris handily won Maryland’s 1st District, but surprisingly lost 33 percent of the vote to an amalgam of a withdrawn candidate and several write-ins.

Despite dropping out in early September, well past the deadline to remove her name from the ballot, Democrat Wendy Rosen still received 27 percent of the vote.

“I don’t know if (voters) didn’t know that I dropped out, if they thought the allegations were petty, or if I shouldn’t have been pushed out.”

Concerns over voter fraud permeated the national discourse during the 2012 election cycle. So when news broke that Rosen had voted in both Florida and Maryland in prior elections, her withdrawal — with nudging from the Maryland Democratic Party — was inevitable. Receiving so many votes afterward was unexpected.

“It shows how strong partisan identification can be,” said Michael Cain, director of The Center for the Study of Democracy at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. “This is a strong behavioral tendency in a lot of voters.”

The Maryland Board of Elections reported that approximately 83 percent of voters are registered with a party, a fact that Cain says is “not trivial.”

Pundits and politicos agree that party affiliation produces an automatic reaction at the polls.

“I really wasn’t that surprised,” said Kathy Szeliga, Harris’ campaign manager. “I think that’s the base vote. The difference is between the ones that pay attention versus the ones that are just pulling the lever for the Democratic ticket.”

As strong a reason as party loyalty is, it seems unreasonable in light of the fact that John LaFerla, who narrowly lost the nomination to Rosen in the Democratic primary, stepped in as a write-in candidate. Voting for Rosen was essentially throwing away a vote.

“It shows how uninformed people are when they go to polls,” said LaFerla’s campaign manager, Erik Gulbrandsen. “I honestly don’t know what it is; I wouldn’t call it apathy, because they did go out and vote.”

With fewer than two months to run a write-in campaign, Gulbrandsen blamed time constraints and limited resources for the public’s failings.

“I think that with only a month and a half to do the campaign, there is only so many people you can reach,” said Gulbrandsen.

In total, there were three write-in candidates who won 5.3 percent of the vote — LaFerla was the only one with backing from one of the two major parties.

The Maryland Board of Elections is still tallying how many votes each got, so LaFerla’s total is unknown. But with all things considered, 33 percent of the vote going to the Wendy Rosen’s name and a few write-ins may illuminate a chink in Harris’ armor.

“For us, we see it as a question of ballot access,” said Matt Verghese, political and communications director for the Maryland Democratic Party. “If we had a Democrat with a great campaign, had the chance to debate the issues with Harris, I think we could clear 40 to 45 percent.”

The congressional redistricting map, which voters approved with Question 5, made District 1 significantly more Republican, making Harris all the more formidable. But with every Democratic congressman and senator winning reelection; Democratic challenger John Delaney unseating10-term-incumbent Roscoe Bartlett in District 6; and sweeping success of Democrat-backed ballot measures, the party is brimming with confidence for 2014.

“It’s a very Republican district, but the voters are pragmatic, said Verghese. “We need the time to organize on the ground; you can see our party did well, given time and preparation.”

But conventional wisdom suggests that the best time to unseat a congressional incumbent is after their first term. That coupled with the high voter support, suggests Democrats dropped the ball.

“I believe that there was an incredible opportunity this year that our party missed,” said Rosen.