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As early voting begins, low turnout predicted in Howard County primaries

ElectionsKen UlmanAnthony Brown

Weeklong early voting opportunities began Thursday and state and local candidates are barreling toward the primary election in less than two weeks, but not everyone is aware – or cares – that there's an opportunity to vote on the horizon.

While there are multiple contested primaries in Howard County this campaign cycle, pollsters and county election officials are predicting low voter turnout rates on June 24.

Experts say the date combines an earlier-than-usual primary election with historical apathy toward primaries in non-presidential election years.

Turnout projections predict between 15 and 27 percent of registered voters will head to the polls, depending on who you ask.

On the higher end of the spectrum, county Board of Elections Director Guy Mickley said he anticipates a turnout of 24 to 27 percent of registered voters in the primary, although those numbers include projected early voting participants. Mickley estimates between 5 and 8 percent of registered voters will take advantage of the early voting option, which begins June 12.

According to data from the Maryland Board of Elections, Howard County voter turnout in the last gubernatorial primary, held Sept. 14, 2010, was 22.33 percent, falling below the statewide average turnout of 25.35 percent.

County Republicans voted in the 2010 primary in slightly higher numbers than Democrats, with 27.87 percent turnout rate, compared with the Democrats' 26.59 percent.

In the 2012 presidential primary, the turnout rate for Howard was even lower, with only about 15.7 percent of voters showing up to the polls on election day.

Local pollster and political blogger Jason Booms said he hadn't done any official projections of his own related to voter turnout, although he predicted that overall primary turnout would be "respectable," with "higher turnout in districts that are experiencing very competitive primaries," such as state legislative districts 9B, which represents Ellicott City, and 12, which represents parts of Howard and Baltimore counties from Catonvsille to Columbia.

Booms pointed to Howard County Executive Ken Ulman's presence on the ballot as running mate to gubernatorial candidate Anthony Brown, the current lieutenant governor, as well as "higher-than-usual interest in the Board of Education campaigns" as further factors that might drive people to the voting booth.

However, some think the earlier voting date could provide a counterweight to those potential boosts.

"I think people are not thinking about voting in June," Mickley said. With school ending June 20 and the official start of summer June 21, "they're thinking about taking a vacation," he said.

Mickley said the county's Board of Elections had only received a little more than 600 absentee ballots so far, a third of the 1,800 or so they typically receive before a primary election.

With the earlier election date in mind, Herb Sweren, President and CEO of bipartisan election software and strategy service CampaignOn, offered a more conservative turnout estimate.

Sweren predicted that the percentage of registered voters who turn up to the polls on primary day will be between 15 and 20 percent.

"In certain jurisdictions, I think there's a lot of worry" about the potential for low turnout, he said.

Loretta Shields, the chairwoman of Howard County's Republican Central Committee, was more blunt.

"The early primary is driving everyone crazy," Shields said, adding the turnout projections she had heard hovered around 19 percent.

As she shared election information from a committee booth at Savage Fest this past weekend, Shields said multiple people told her they thought the primary was in September.

"No, it's in two weeks," was her reply.

Though central committees can't endorse primary candidates, Shields said her group was working to educate voters and inspire them to head to the polls. Part of the strategy, she said, would be to encourage people to vote early.

Across the state, early voting lasts from Thursday, June 12 to Thursday, June 19, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., including the weekends. Any registered voter who is qualified for the election can vote early.

In Howard County, there are three early voting locations: Columbia's Florence Bain Senior Center, Ridgely's Run Community Center in Jessup and the Howard County Miller Branch Library in Ellicott City. Previously, early voting had been scheduled for the Ellicott City Senior Center before it was switched to the library.

Maryland residents can also request and file an absentee ballot without offering a reason for doing so.

Part of the problem might be a break from tradition. In the past, Maryland's gubernatorial primaries have been held in mid-September, just a month and a half before the November general election.

But changes to a federal law, the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act, now require states to send service members and other overseas Americans their ballots at least 45 days before an election.

Without bumping up the primary, "it would be completely infeasible to send out ballots in time," according to Mickley.

Despite apparent indifference to the primary election on the part of a large swath of the electorate, experts say the primaries are often the decisive elections.

According to a fact sheet from the Center for Voting and Democracy, a non-partisan nonprofit dedicated to expanding voting rights, "the primary election is decisive most of the time.

"That's because most districts and states favor one of the two major parties so strongly that whichever candidate wins the favored party's primary will be certain to win in November," the group explains.

While it's impossible to know exactly what voters will do until election day, Shields said she hoped voters would take advantage of their right to choose the county's future leaders.

Beyond educating and encouraging voters up until election day, she said, all that's left is hoping "people take their civic pride and go forward and vote."

 

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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