Voter turnout for the presidential primary Tuesday was Maryland's lowest in at least 32 years.
About 21 percent of registered voters cast a ballot Tuesday, according to early tallies from the Maryland Board of Elections. That figure does not include absentee and provisional ballots, which may push up the final total, but officials said turnout won't reach 25 percent. That is the previous record low — set in 1996 — in the 32 years for which statewide records are available.
"Voters know when there's a real election and when there's not a real election," said John Willis, a political science professor at the University of Baltimore and former Maryland secretary of state. Tuesday's election, he said, did not have enough competitive races to draw people to the polls. The election featured primaries for president, Congress and some local races for school board and judicial seats.
The poor showing shouldn't cause alarm, said Willis, who has studied presidential races in Maryland.
Just four years ago, he pointed out, about 43 percent of registered voters took part in the primary. A trend line drawn between the 2008 and 2012 primaries appears alarming, he said, with participation dropping by half. But putting 2012 into the context of three decades, he said it is merely another valley — the third of nine presidential primaries where turnout was less than 30 percent in Maryland.
"People shouldn't fall into the trap of blaming voters," Willis said. The candidates are actually the ones who should face the blame for low turnout, he said.
Few resources were put into advertising by candidates at all levels, he said. Presidential contenders, not local races, draw voters, and spending by the Republican candidates was sparse, he said.
"If you don't ask the voters to vote, they're not going to," he said. "If there's competition and there's resources put into it, people will respond."
Nonpartisan get-out-the-vote efforts also were less than in past years. The League of Women Voters of Carroll County, for instance, did not distribute a printed voter's guide or hold candidate forums for this year's primary because the organization lacked staff to pull it off, said Carol Blackburn, the chapter's president.
"We just did not have the people, the volunteers," Blackburn said.
Instead, the group posted voter information on an Internet site and passed out fliers with the Web address. The group also paid for space in the local newspaper to advertise the site. She said she heard from several people who decried the loss of printed voter information.
"I feel bad for those folks who don't have access to computers," particularly seniors, said Blackburn.
In the fall, she said, the league expects to hold a candidate forum for the county's board of education and may produce a printed voter's guide if sponsors can be found.
The primary turnout is not a good predictor of the number of people who will go to the polls in the general election, said Willis.
The state elections board always prepares for 100 percent of registered voters showing up regardless of predicted turnout, said Ross Goldstein, the state's deputy elections administrator.
"From our perspective, the job is the same," he said. "We plan for everybody showing up."
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