Baltimore voters will cast ballots today in one of the quirkiest primaries in city history, one that precedes the general election by more than a year, carves the city into new districts, pits City Council incumbents against one another and allows 16-year-olds to vote.
Despite a mayoral race topping the ballot, city officials predict a dismal turnout for an election sprung on them five months ago, when Baltimore and state lawmakers could not agree on moving the primary closer to the November 2004 general election.
With the general election so far away, voters confused about redrawn council districts and a mayor's race widely seen as uncompetitive, few of the city's 285,539 eligible voters are likely to go to the polls, said Barbara E. Jackson, city election administrator.
"I'm predicting no more than a 28 percent turnout," she said. "That's being very generous."
In 1999, when there was a hot primary race for mayor, turnout was 36.3 percent, she said. "A lot of people don't really know there is an election," Jackson said. "People are just finding out because no one really thought there was going to be an election this year."
Many voters skip primaries, which they consider less important than general elections, Jackson said. But in a city like Baltimore - home to 230,616 registered Democrats and 27,173 Republicans - the primary is the main event.
"A lot of people say, 'I'll wait for the real election,'" she said. "Well, this is the real election."
The primary gives 16-year- olds a historic opportunity to vote, but few will take advantage of it, Jackson said. Only 855 16-year-olds registered. The teens got the franchise because they will be 18 by the time the general election rolls around.
Today's voting could decide not just the next mayor, but the next two. That's because whoever is elected City Council president will automatically become mayor if Martin O'Malley is re-elected, runs for governor in 2006 as some expect, and wins.
In the Democratic primary, O'Malley faces his strongest challenge from Andrey Bundley, principal of Walbrook Uniform Services Academy. Elbert R. Henderson is unopposed in the Republican primary.
O'Malley has asked voters to return him to office to continue fighting crime, creating jobs and improving schools. He said yesterday that he hoped to win every City Council district, as he did four years ago. "I'd be elated to win by one vote," he added.
Bundley, who has questioned O'Malley's assertions that the city has improved on his watch, predicted an upset.
"They're going to use words like 'miraculous'" to describe a come-from-behind victory, Bundley said. "I say to our base and all people of good will to take two people to the polls, and it will be fine Sept. 9."
The race for City Council president appeared to be closer, with incumbent Sheila Dixon facing first-term Councilwoman Catherine E. Pugh and former Councilman Carl Stokes. No Republican is running.
Dixon, who has been closely aligned with O'Malley, ran on a promise to continue reducing crime, increasing economic development and improving schools. "It's imperative that people get out and vote," Dixon said. "One thing you don't want with the momentum going in the city and the progress we're making, we don't want people to have apathy."
"I think people are interested in this campaign and will go" to the polls, Pugh said. "I'm excited about being the next president of the Baltimore City Council."
Stokes said he would make the city a better place for children and the council more independent of the mayor. He predicted a good turnout and said that would benefit him as a challenger. "I think there has been a concerted effort by some of the incumbents to make it seem like a nothing election," he said. "It's a very important election obviously."
The primary is the first election since the passage of Question P, a ballot initiative that shrunk and reshaped the council. Instead of six three-member districts, the revamped council has 14 districts, each with one member. The council president continues to be elected citywide.
As a result, council members are running in smaller districts, on their own and sometimes against longtime allies. Gone is the slate system that made it hard for underfunded candidates to compete.
Nearly 90 people are running for council in the Democratic and Republican primaries.
The smaller districts could make it easier for grass-roots - and fringe - candidates to win election, said Matthew A. Crenson, chairman of the political science department at the . Low turnout combined with small districts means a candidate could win with little more than 1,000 votes, he said.
"That's the danger," he said. "Some crackpot can get in. ... You have to remember, 1,200, 1,000 votes - that's the size of a church congregation."
Community groups that put Question P on the ballot in November are eager to see whether the smaller districts make it possible for less-established candidates to win.
"The question is how much shoe leather is worth," said Mitchell Klein, head organizer for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, a group that backed Question P.