Howard sees low voter turnout during week of early voting

Candidates and their supporters flooded the parking lot of Columbia's Florence Bain Senior Center on the first day of early voting June 12 for this year's primary elections, but people turning out to cast votes came in more of a trickle than a stream.

The slow pace continued through the week, according to elections officials

"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 Thursday morning when early voting started 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 Thursday the number of people walking into the early voting center seemed sparse.

By late afternoon, about 450 people had cast ballots 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.

Officials had predicted the primaries, traditionally held in September, could face low voter turnout rates in Howard County and across the state. Many have pushed early voting and absentee voting as a way of remedying the early primary problem.

Of the nearly 3.4 million active eligible voters in Maryland, about 197,000 live in Howard County. After five days of early voting, 2.4 percent of those eligible voters in Howard made it to the voting stations, which was marginally more than the statewide total of 2.1 percent.

Almost 1,400 votes were cast in Howard County by the end of the first day of early voting, but daily totals decreased with each passing day, dipping to 476 votes cast on Sunday before bouncing back up to about 1,100 on Monday.

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 turned out to vote early were a group of Howard County teachers, who were at the Bain Center in red shirts June 12 and stuck around after voting to talk. They said they hoped to promote Board of Education candidates who would support them in an ongoing struggle over contract negotiations.

"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 education, 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," said Stein, who said she had voted in every election since she turned 18.

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 runs through Thursday, June 19. Voting centers are open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Ulysses Munoz contributed to this story.

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