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Small number of voters could decide gubernatorial contests

How many votes does it take to win a primary for governor in Maryland?

Considering this is a state of nearly 6 million people, not many.

If turnout Tuesday is on par with the last gubernatorial primary four years ago, 180,000 votes could theoretically carry the day for the Democratic nomination. Just 75,000 would be enough to squeak by in the Republican field.

That's less than 10 percent of registered voters in each party.

"It's a really striking realization," said Laslo Boyd, a political columnist and consultant who has worked on political campaigns in Maryland.

Pollster Keith Haller, president of market research firm Potomac Inc. in Bethesda, describes the number of needed votes another way: "frighteningly low."

The ultimate winners in Tuesday's contests might well draw substantially more than the bare minimum they need. Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, a Democrat, and Republican Larry Hogan each had significant leads over their opponents when OpinionWorks polled likely voters for The Baltimore Sun in late May and early June.

But in both the Democratic and Republican races, whoever prevails on Tuesday is likely to have the fewest votes for a Maryland gubernatorial primary winner in years.

At work are two forces that don't generally go in tandem.

This primary has the most competitive governor's race in two decades, so the winners aren't likely to get the blow-out margins that marked more recent campaigns. Meanwhile — despite the competition — political consultants and commentators say they wouldn't be surprised if turnout is even worse than it was in 2010, when just a quarter of eligible voters cast a ballot.

"I think it could be an historic low," said John T. Willis, executive in residence at University of Baltimore's School of Public and International Affairs and an author of books about Maryland elections and politics. "We're at a low ebb in terms of turnout."

Haller says a variety of polls this year suggest such an outcome. Interest in voting is down by about a third among occasional primary voters in particular, compared with previous years, he said.

In Maryland, the June date will likely play a role in keeping turnout down, said Willis, a former Maryland secretary of state. That puts voting in competition with summer activities — and it could catch people by surprise in a state long used to a September primary.

Though turnout was up during this year's longer early voting period, only 4.17 percent of the state's eligible primary voters took advantage of the option.

Mike Morrill, a longtime Democratic strategist in the state, said it's also not good for turnout when the governor's race has a clear front-runner — as both parties do this year — and there's no big issue to get voters revved up.

Every candidate he's talked to about the primary is worried about how it might play out on Tuesday.

"Candidates and campaign managers always fear low turnout because it can really change the dynamics of an election," said Morrill, who isn't working for any state or local campaigns this year.

That's generally a bigger issue in races that draw fewer votes than governor, he said. In races for state's attorney, school board, register of wills — small shifts in who turns up can make a difference. (Willis points to a 1989 race for mayor of Westminster in which the incumbent lost by 12 votes.)

Morrill doesn't expect an upset in the governor's race. But he thinks Del. Heather R. Mizeur — in third place in the Democratic primary, according to the Sun's poll — is the candidate who would most benefit from low turnout.

"In the governor's race, some of the most passionate supporters are Heather's," Morrill said. "I believe in a low-turnout race, she will do better than we expected. It might not necessarily be enough for her to win, but it's that dynamic that helps her the most."

A handful of states have runoff elections if no one in the primary gets at least 50 percent of the vote, but Maryland is not among them. Whoever amasses the most votes wins.

But few gubernatorial primaries in the last quarter-century were hotly contested in Maryland. That's allowed most of the winning candidates from 1986 onward to sail through with at least 70 percent of the vote. In some cases — 2006 for both parties and 1986 for the GOP — the primary was uncontested.

The closest gubernatorial primary in the last generation decided the Republican nominee in 1990. Retired diplomat William S. Shepard beat retired surgeon Ross Z. Pierpont by just 6,901 votes. That left Shepard with the smallest primary tally of the last seven elections, 66,966 votes in all.

But it turned out to be a contest for who would get beaten by then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer. The former Baltimore mayor easily won re-election.

Schaefer bemoaned the primary turnout that year, which at 33 percent was far better than in 2010.

"People who were opposed to certain issues certainly did come out," he said at the time. "Those who were satisfied apparently didn't bother coming out."

The candidate who won the Democratic primary with the least total votes in the last quarter century was Parris N. Glendening, then county executive of Prince George's, as he aimed for what became the first of his two terms as governor.

That 1994 contest wasn't close, however. It was simply crowded.

In a field of seven, Glendening came away with 293,000 votes — more than the rest of his competitors put together. Schaefer's lieutenant governor, Melvin A. Steinberg, received just 82,000 votes.

The Republican primary that year featured a surprise win by then-Del. Ellen R. Sauerbrey over Helen Delich Bentley — then a congresswoman. But it too was no squeaker. Sauerbrey had 124,000 votes, 34,000 more than Bentley and 100,000 more than third-place Shepard.

Voter turnout was 40 percent for that primary, which Morrill marks as the point when the center of gravity for the governor's race shifted from the Baltimore region to the Washington suburbs.

And no gubernatorial primary has since come close on voter participation.

Haller, who has surveyed Maryland voters for more than 20 years, finds the steep drop troubling. He notes that primaries are particularly important in a state like Maryland, where the Democrats' 2-to-1 advantage in voter registration means that most of the party's nominees win their general elections.

One factor he sees is the widening pool of registered voters who aren't affiliated with one of the two main parties — nearly 720,000 Marylanders, compared with 950,000 Republicans and 2 million Democrats. Independent and third-party voters are shut out of the state's effectively closed primaries, not counting a few nonpartisan school board races.

And younger voters "are showing profound disconnect and separation from state and local issues," he said.

Haller calls this de facto disenfranchisement. It's a nationwide problem.

Michael P. McDonald, an associate professor at the University of Florida who studies voting trends, said American primaries are more important than they once were as congressional races are increasingly decided there rather than in general elections. And yet primaries have seen "steady erosion in turnout for decades and decades."

"There's a deep dissatisfaction right now from people on both sides … who don't feel like the system is representing their interests very well," he said.

Boyd, with Columbia-based Mellenbrook Policy Advisors, calls the Maryland turnout in recent years "awful." It hovered around 30 percent in the 1998, 2002 and 2006 elections before falling to 25 percent four years ago.

He said he wouldn't be surprised if turnout is 20 percent this time. Haller feels the same way.

That would put even fewer Marylanders in the position of picking the party nominees — one of whom will end up running the state for at least four years.

"In some ways — I don't think this is melodramatic — we are at risk of losing our democracy because people are giving it away," Boyd said.

jhopkins@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jsmithhopkins

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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