Maryland turnout expected to be lowest in decades

Voter turnout for Tuesday's presidential primary in Maryland was expected to be the lowest in at least 30 years, state election officials said.

In 1996, when President Bill Clinton faced little competition while running for re-election, only 25 percent of voters turned out for the primary in heavily Democratic Maryland. Tuesday's turnout could be "a little lower than that," said Donna Duncan, election management director for the Maryland State Board of Elections.

"Hopefully, with all of the absentee and provisional votes, we'll reach that level," Duncan said. "It's comparable to other elections when there's an incumbent president."

Ross Goldstein, deputy administrator for the election board, said turnout Tuesday appeared to be consistent with elections in the Free State that don't have a competitive Democratic race. In contrast, turnout reached 42.8 percent for the 2008 primary when now-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was battling then-Sen. Barack Obama for the nomination.

Poll workers described similar scenes at precincts across Maryland on Tuesday: no lines and light turnout.

As Larry Kamner walked across the empty basketball court at the Gen. Harry C. Ruhl Armory in Towson, he said voting was among the slowest he'd seen in 50 years of working at Baltimore area precincts. By 9:30 a.m., a mere 59 people — of the precinct's 2,135 voters — had turned out.

Fewer than 50 voters had shown up by 8:30 a.m. at the polling place at Towson Presbyterian Church on West Chesapeake Avenue. Ann Shepter, the chief GOP judge, said it was one of the lightest turnouts she's witnessed. The precinct's total number of voters is 2,715.

For Democrats Mary Jo Putney, a 65-year-old novelist, and her partner of 33 years, John Rekus, a 60-year-old engineer, the trip to Ridge Ruxton School on North Charles Street was to support incumbent Democrats — U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin and 3rd District Rep. John Sarbanes.

Putney said she likes Cardin's stance on health issues and has found Sarbanes very responsive and good at communicating his efforts in Washington to his constituents.

"They are generally in line with what I believe," Putney said.

The two were among about 85 who had voted by 10:45 a.m. in the Republican-leaning precinct, John O'Hara, the chief GOP judge, said. He described the morning as "sluggish."

As the day went on, precincts across Maryland continued to report low turnout. At Brooklyn Park Middle School, 180 voters had turned out by 4 p.m.

Tonya Blue, a 20-year-old student studying education at Coppin State University, said that as a black woman, she felt it was her duty to vote Tuesday. Blue said she is just becoming involved in the political process and voted for Obama, though he faced no real opposition in the primary.

"My ancestors did a lot for us to get this far," she said. "I wanted to do it on their behalf and toward my future."

Many Republican voters said they came to cast a ballot in the presidential race, and that the congressional races were of less importance to them. Lauren Calloway, a 23-year-old part-time event planner, spent the day at a booth she created outside the school to support Texas Rep. Ron Paul's campaign. She said she wasn't sure if she changed any minds, but she hopes she gave voters something to think about. "I believe he's the right man. He's the most logical," she said.

The No. 1 issue for operating room assistant Karen Baker, 53, is abortion. She said she voted for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney because she sees him as aligned with her anti-abortion beliefs. Baker said Romney stands a good chance of beating Obama in November, "but I think it will be close."

Newt Gingrich has the debate skills to take on Obama, said Keith Wagner, a 36-year-old tax accountant from Brooklyn Park. The former House speaker's stage presence would be enough to sway undecided voters in November, he said. Still, he said he is not optimistic that the GOP candidate — whomever it may be — will be able to unseat the president.

As a Republican in Maryland, Wagner said he'd like to see the state become more relevant in GOP politics.

"If everybody stays home because it doesn't matter, then it's never going to matter."