Key races, little interest as primary nears

Jeffrey Duval of Beechfield votes in at Edmondson High School in last September's primary election.
Jeffrey Duval of Beechfield votes in at Edmondson High School in last September's primary election. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun)

Despite high-profile races — including a Republican presidential contest that brought the candidates swinging through the state and a nationally significant House race in Western Maryland — elections officials predict that turnout could fall to near-record lows in Tuesday's primary.

The ho-hum reaction in Maryland is being driven by several factors: lack of a competitive race at the top of the Democratic ticket; a primary date that falls in the middle of spring break for many schools; and the inability of most of the GOP presidential candidates to organize in one of the bluest states in the nation.

The outcome of the state's primary voting will not be without consequence. Maryland Republicans could reinforce former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's front-runner status in the GOP presidential primary — or could surprise pundits and alter the course of the race by backing someone else. Democrats in the 6th Congressional District will choose a candidate to contest a House seat that has been held by Republican Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett for 20 years.

But none of it seems to be generating much enthusiasm.

"We've done everything we can to get the voter turnout," said Ben Cardin, a Democrat who faces opposition in his bid for a second term in the U.S. Senate. Cardin says he's been to political events in recent days at which people are unaware that the primary election takes place Tuesday. "It's been a struggle."

Cardin's leading Democratic opponent, state Sen. C. Anthony Muse, noted that this is the first presidential election in Maryland with early voting. Because of that, he said, it's hard to predict turnout. "Whether it's low voter turnout or high voter turnout, you have to get your people to the polls," he said, "and that's what we're working on."

Other potentially competitive races include the Republican primary for U.S. Senate, which pits former Secret Service agent Daniel John Bongino against former Pentagon official and attorney Richard J. Douglas. Democrats John LaFerla of Chestertown and Wendy Rosen of Cockeysville are among the candidates battling for a chance to challenge Republican Rep. Andy Harris in the 1st District.

State election officials report that 76,124 Marylanders took part in early voting, about 2.4 percent of eligible voters. That's down from the 77,288 who cast ballots before Election Day in the 2010 gubernatorial primary, the first year in which early voting was allowed. If those numbers are an indication of voting overall, the state could see a turnout of less than 25 percent.

"People tend to really focus on the general election," said former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who heads Romney's presidential campaign in Maryland — an effort that included a town hall meeting March 21 in Arbutus. "We're sort of in the fourth quarter with a comfortable lead, so there's not a lot of people left in the stands."

A Rasmussen Reports poll last week — the only independent survey of the presidential race in Maryland — supports that analysis. The poll showed Romney with a 17-point lead over former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who campaigned Tuesday in Annapolis and Salisbury but announced hours later that he was scaling back his operation, was in third place.

Maryland offers up to 37 delegates to a candidate for the GOP convention this summer. Twenty-four of the state's delegates are awarded by congressional district, 10 are awarded to the winner of the popular vote and three go to state party officials.

Theresa Marozza, 74, a Severna Park Republican, says she has contributed money to Santorum, voted for Gingrich and thinks just about any of the GOP candidates would be better than President Barack Obama. Marozza, standing outside an early-voting center in Glen Burnie, said booting out the current administration was her main motivation to vote.

"I'd vote for anybody to get you know who out," Marozza said. "He has taken us down the tubes."

Longtime Glen Burnie residents John and Barbara Schmid said they appreciated that most of the Republican candidates came to Maryland, a state often overlooked in presidential elections. He voted for Gingrich. She is backing Santorum.

But Barbara Schmid, 49, said she's all too aware that Maryland is a sure bet to back Obama in November.

"We feel like we need to put our voice out there, put our vote out there," she said.

Obama does not face a challenge in the Democratic primary. In a state where registered Democratic voters outnumber Republicans by a margin of more than 2-to-1, it is unlikely that the marginally competitive GOP presidential primary will drive a lot of people to the polls. John Willis, Maryland's secretary of state from 1995 to 2003, compared this primary to 1996, when then-President Bill Clinton was running for a second term.

Turnout that year slipped to 22 percent of registered Democrats and 35 percent of registered Republicans, according to the Maryland State Board of Elections.

"What drives turnout in presidential years is the competitiveness of the race at the top of the ticket," said Willis, now executive in residence in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Baltimore. "You don't have the competition going on on the Democratic side."

Timing is another factor causing confusion with some voters. In 2008, Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia voted Feb. 12 in what became known colloquially as the Potomac Primary. But last year, the General Assembly changed the date to April 3 after the national parties prohibited most states from holding primaries before early March.

The day lawmakers chose falls during spring break for many school systems in the state, including Baltimore and Montgomery counties. That means that many families will be out of town on vacation. 

Turnout "is going to be very light," predicted Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller.

State and local elections officials have tried to encourage participation. The state opened 46 early voting centers for six days, including for the first time on Sunday. Yet the number of people who cast an early ballot fell statewide.

"In general, around the country, early voting hasn't meant much. It hasn't improved voter turnout," said Donald F. Norris, chairman of the public policy department at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "If you look at all of the tinkering that's been done with registration and voting and so on and so forth around the country over the past 30 or 40 years ... it hasn't materially affected turnout."

One of the few areas of the state that has experienced an increase in early voting turnout is the 6th Congressional District, where the number of people voting ahead of Election Day was up 21 percent, to 7,632. That increase is likely due in part to the fact that the district was redrawn last year.

The 6th District, which includes Western Maryland and parts of Frederick and Montgomery counties, is home to the most compelling race in the state. State Sen. Robert J. Garagiola, a Germantown lawyer, has long been considered the favorite for the Democratic nomination and has the backing of the state's labor unions. But Potomac banker John Delaney has spent more money and, with endorsements from former President Clinton and The Washington Post, appeared to catch a last-minute wave of momentum.

Because redistricting made the seat more competitive, the Democratic nominee will have a chance to capture it for his party for the first time in decades. It is one of only five seats in the nation that the nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates as a possible Democratic takeover in November.

Bartlett, the Republican incumbent, has seven opponents in the GOP primary.

The changes in the 6th District and the competitive nature of the race drove Connie Bohon, 59, a Germantown physician, to get out and vote. Bohon had previously been represented by Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen in the 8th District but found herself in the 6th District when the lines were redrawn.

She attended a candidate forum, got to know the issues and ultimately settled on Democrat Milad Pooran, also a physician.

The notion of sitting out the primary never crossed her mind.

"This," Bohon said, "is a time when my vote is going to make a difference."

Baltimore Sun reporter Annie Linskey contributed to this article.





Voting in Tuesday's primary

•Polls are open 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.

•You must be affiliated with a party to vote in a presidential or congressional primary.

•Unaffiliated voters may nominate candidates for nonpartisan positions, such as school boards in Howard and Carroll counties

•To find your polling place, go to https://www.mdelections.umd.edu/

Md. presidential election turnout 1988-2008


Primary: 43 percent

General: McCain vs. Obama, 78 percent


Primary: 27 percent

General: George W. Bush vs. Kerry, 78 percent


Primary: 35 percent

General: George W. Bush vs. Gore, 75 percent


Primary: 25 percent

General: Clinton vs. Dole, 70 percent


Primary: 40 percent

General: George Bush vs. Clinton, 81 percent


Primary: 36 percent

General: George Bush vs. Dukakis, 76 percent

Source: Maryland State Board of Elections (Figures rounded to nearest whole number)