Candidates and their supporters swarmed the parking lot of Columbia's Florence Bain Senior Center on the first day of early voting for this year's primary elections, but residents coming out to cast a vote came in more of a steady trickle and much less impressive numbers.
"There's been a regular number of people coming in," said Harry Dunbar, who stood among one of many patches of colorful campaign signs clustered on the parking lot's grassy median strips. Dunbar had been electioneering outside the center since morning to support state's attorney candidate Rich Gibson.
"It's a little slower, which is frustrating because there's so much at stake," Carole Fisher, the treasurer of the Columbia Democratic Club and a longtime volunteer outside the polls, said of the first day's turnout. She said the number of people walking into the early voting center seemed sparser than usual.
By late afternoon, about 450 people had come to cast a vote at the Bain Center, according to Howard County Board of Elections Director Guy Mickley. He said polling stations at the Miller Branch Library in Ellicott City and at Ridgely's Run Community Center in Jessup had smaller turnout numbers.
Despite several option-filled primary races, officials have predicted that apathy toward primaries, coupled with much earlier voting dates -- Maryland primaries are traditionally held in September -- could result in low voter turnout rates in Howard County and across the state. Many have pushed early and absentee voting as a way of remedying the early primary problem.
Owen Brown resident Alice Coates said she normally votes on election day. This year, however, she will be gone on vacation on election day, so she decided to vote early.
Coates said she didn't mind the early date: "It's fine with me -- I'm not running."
Among the most visible of those who came out to vote early were a group of Howard County teachers, who turned out in red shirts and stuck around after voting to talk to people walking into the center. They said they hoped to promote Board of Education candidates who would support them in their ongoing contract negotiations struggle.
"We think we can be decisive in primaries, with 5,000 members," Howard County Education Association President Paul Lemle said. "We started, about a month ago, hammering this platform: better public educaiton, better contract."
Mary Stein, a nurse at Lime Kiln Middle School and Clarksville Elementary School, said the primary represented "a huge opportunity to make some meaningful change.
"You don't want to miss your opportunity to exercise your right to vote," Stein, who said she had voted in every election since she turned 18, added.
Jennifer Bezy, a first-grade teacher at Fulton Elementary School, said she had "never been this involved.
But now, "this is my livelihood," she said. "I feel like I'm a voice and doing something, instead of just complaining at my kitchen table."
Early voting will run through June 19. Polling centers are open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., including Saturday and Sunday.