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Election Day sends Laurel voters, and candidates, to the polls in both wards

Throughout the day, a steady stream of voters continued to show up at Laurel's two polling places to cast ballots in local elections for the mayor's office and City Council seats.

There are more than 14,000 eligible voters in Laurel, but low voter turnout has been an issue in nearly all city elections. Some predicted that the spirited mayoral and at-large City Council contested races would bring residents to the polls in droves, but that didn't appear to be the case this afternoon.

According to City Clerk Kim Rau, 66 absentee ballots have been received from voters and 233 residents voted in the three-days of early voting on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

At the Robert DiPietro Community Center in Ward 2, election judge Gwendolyn Boyd said at 1:45 p.m. that 335 residents had cast ballots, and 368 had voted by 3 p.m. at the Municipal Center in Ward 1. Those numbers are expected to get a boost as voters head home from work today, but in the meantime, compared to past elections, those working at the polls and most candidates are pleased with the turnout.

"It has been a steady stream since we opened the doors at 7 a.m., when there were people waiting to vote," said Boyd.

At the Municipal Center, chief election judge William Wellford said compared to the past three elections that he has worked, Tuesday's turnout is an improvement.

"Before we had stragglers at this time of day (3 p.m.), but it's been steady with no lulls," Wellford said. "It's different this year because we have places to vote in two wards now, and considering that half of the voters are at Ward 2, the turnout is good for us."

Wellford estimated there had been between 50 and 75 voters at the Laurel Municipal Center by 8:30 a.m.

In 2008, 402 voters turned out to vote for City Council candidates in uncontested races. This represented 3.4 percent of registered voters, down from the 6.9 percent who voted in 2006, when all the candidates faced challengers.

Second polling place debuts

This year marks the first time that there has been a polling station in Ward 2 and also the first time that voters can only vote for candidates running for council in their ward, with the exception being the citywide at-large council seat and the mayor's office.

City Councilman Frederick Smalls, who faces no opposition for his Ward 2 seat on the council, said he is pleased with having two polling places in both of the city's wards this year.

"This makes it easier for people to get to the polls in their neighborhoods and we've seen people walking to the polls," Smalls said. "It also allows members to concentrate more on their ward's issues and be more responsive to the people they represent."

With a smaller area, Smalls said he and fellow Ward 2 Council member Donna Crary, who is also running unopposed, have been able to attend homeowner's association meetings and have walked their ward more.

"I like this, and there will be no excuse for us as council members not to be responsive to the residents in our wards," Smalls said.

Michael Sarich, who is challenging Mayor Craig Moe, pushed for polling stations in both of the city's wards when he sat on the council and said he is happy that voters are able to cast ballots closer to their homes in Ward 2. He thinks it will help turnout, as he works to get more voters to the polls.

"We have people making calls to get people out to vote and are sending out messages on Facebook," Sarich said. "We're doing our best to get as many people as possible out."

So is Laurel Boys and Girls Club athletic director Adrian Rousseau, who is seeking to unseat at-large City Council member Michael Leszcz, who is also the council president.

"I feel just OK about the turnout," Rousseau said. "I'll be shooting through the neighborhoods and making sure people come to the polls because every vote will be needed."

Charges, counter-charges

Incumbents and challengers all say they are optimistic about their races in an election year that has been marred with negative campaign literature, charges and counter-charges between candidates and allegations of election violations.

"I'll be glad when it's all over," said Moe, who is seeking a third term as mayor. "We've tried to put a positive message out there and let the voters make their decision."

But some supporters of the mayor have sent out campaign literature and made statements in the press that question the credentials of Sarich, considered Moe's top rival in the three-way mayoral race. Sarich, a former City Council member, has in turn made counter-charges against the Moe camp and has asked state officials to launch an investigation regarding alleged campaign violations.

Mayoral candidate Valerie Cunningham, who sits on Laurel's Ethics Commission and is seen as a long-shot in the race, said she is optimistic about her chances of winning and expressed displeasure over the overall tone of the race.

"I am disappointed at the level of acrimony being displayed in this election and how it's gotten away from the issues," Cunningham said. "There are real concerns about quality-of-life issues that need to be discussed and I'm disappointed that some candidates have turned the election into mud slinging."

Leszcz also expressed disapproval regarding the negative aspects of some campaigning.

"It was not very good and I think there's an awful lot of things said that's not the truth," said Leszcz, although he would not elaborate on that point.

Some voters have expressed the same sentiments, such as Tali Reed, who moved to the city three years ago and lives in the Villages of Wellington.

"I was looking to hear the candidates talk about crime and improving the schools, but there have been some underhanded strategies that have made me uncomfortable," Reed said. "I don't like stuff like that. State your platform and support it and don't try to get votes by badgering each other. I was in the booth for a long time because it was hard for me to make a decision on whom to vote for. It was challenging."

For Athena Schaffer, the negativity was not a distraction.

"The mud slinging is apparent in every election and it just means someone is probably scared," Schaffer said.

Rousseau said this first time out as a candidate has been a learning experience.

"The falsification of stuff being said by other candidates is getting to me and if that's what politics is about, I'll have to reevaluate it because I thought we were out here to make a difference in the community," Rousseau said. "But win, lose or draw, I've put my best foot forward and hope my message on the way we need to go was heard. If I don't win I will work with whoever does and hope they will work with me. I'll still be a voice in the community and do my best to support the council in making better decisions for Laurel."

Slow and steady morning

A small stream of voters flowed in and out of the polls at both locations as voting began this morning.

Boyd, the chief election judge for Ward 2, said by 9:30 a.m. roughly 100 people had voted in Ward 2.

"Everything's working fine," she added about the new voting machines. Boyd said there had been no confusion at the community center regarding voters showing up to vote in the wrong ward.

Wellford and Boyd agreed that the peak hours for voting were in the morning, before people headed into work; around lunch; and in the evening, as people are returning home from work. The judges said they expect the largest crowds between 5 and 8 p.m., when the polls close.

Voters in the morning seemed to have a good experience.

"It was very smooth," Shirley Bell said after she voted at the Municipal Center. "I was in and out in five minutes."

John Norton, also a Ward 1 voter, agreed.

"It was great – very quick and easy," he said.

All three mayoral candidates and the two at-large city council candidates were out at the polls, passing out literature and trying to drum up last-minute support.

"Things seem to be going OK," incumbent Moe said around 8 a.m. at the Municipal Center in Ward 1. An hour later, he said the same thing at the DiPietro Community Center in Ward 2.

Moe's challengers, Sarich and Cunningham, both said the morning turnout was good at the Ward 2 polls.

"I think we've done everything we can do to increase turnout," Sarich said.

Incumbent at-large Council member Michael Leszcz agreed the turnout was as expected. He guessed that the numbers would compare to past city elections.

"If the snow gets cleared, the trash gets picked up and the police show up, no one shows for elections," Leszcz said, but noted "it's not apathy."

Looking ahead to 2012

Shortly after 8 a.m., an unexpected visitor showed up to campaign in Ward 1. Jacqueline Murray, a Bowie resident, was putting out campaign signs for her son David Murray, who is running for a seat on the Prince George's County Board of Education in 2012.

Though Murray's primary election is several months away, she said Laurel's election provided a good opportunity to get his name out there.

"Everyone that's coming out to vote today is a potential voter in April for school board," she said.

Murray, who is a student at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, was in school, his mother said, but he plans to come to the Laurel polls to campaign after classes.

Jacqueline Murray said her son "never stopped" campaigning since he narrowly lost to incumbent District 1 school board member Rosalind Johnson last November.

"He's not one to give up," she said.

This story has been updated.

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