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GOP numbers falter

The Baltimore Sun

Democrats are surging in voter registration in Maryland leading up to the presidential primary, outpacing Republicans by a more than 3-to-1 margin since the 2004 contest.

With tomorrow's deadline to register to vote in Maryland's Feb. 12 primary at hand, Democrats have accounted for 51 percent of registrations in the past four years, while Republicans garnered 15 percent. That split is a contrast to the period leading up to the 2004 presidential primary, when Democrats got 37 percent and Republicans 30 percent.

Some political experts and observers attribute the shift, which served to maintain the Democrats' nearly 2-1 registration advantage overall in Maryland, to dissatisfaction with the president.

"What it reflects is animosity toward the Bush administration," said Matthew Crenson, a Johns Hopkins University political science professor.

The good news for the political process, Crenson said, is that the high voter turnout for the 2004 election - the highest since 1968 - could signal the start of a trend. With recession fears and the war in Iraq on voters' minds, he predicted another high turnout in November.

"What we may be watching is a long-term reversal of the declining interest in politics," Crenson said.

Since 2004, more than 311,000 registrations had been tallied through Thursday, and 31.8 percent filed as unaffiliated or members of unrecognized parties. The remaining registrants are members of the Green or Libertarian parties.

Unaffiliated and others make up about 16 percent of the total of Maryland's 3.1 million voters.

The Republicans' plight is illustrated vividly in Howard and Montgomery counties, where GOP registrations dropped by a combined 7,850 voters over the past four years, while the number of Democrats increased 21,669.

Republican leaders expressed unconcern about the numbers.

"There are cycles," said Sen. Allan H. Kittleman, a Republican who is minority whip in the General Assembly. "I don't think it will ever get to the point where a Republican couldn't win. We are still very competitive."

Quincy Gamble, executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party, agrees that President Bush's unpopularity is a significant factor, but he said party officials also have worked hard to register more voters as Democrats.

"Here in Maryland we've had a strong party and strong leadership," Gamble said. "The direction George W. Bush has taken the country is not what people believe."

Democratic Rep. Elijah E. Cummings said voters are angry that although billions are being spent every month in Iraq, prices for gasoline, food and home utilities are rising, but paychecks are not.

"They're totally frustrated," Cummings said. "They want to be protected from terrorists, but they want a balance."

However, at the same time, the presidential campaign is exciting voters with "some good choices" among Democratic candidates, Cummings said.

State Republican Party Chairman James Pelura discounted Bush's low approval ratings as a reason for his party's poor showing, pointing to Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley's flagging popularity in a recent poll by The Sun.

"We've had a difficult situation here with Sept. 11. President Bush has done a marvelous job in seeing our country move ahead after that," Pelura said, noting that no attacks have occurred within the United States.

Moreover, neither former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, nor O'Malley won by a landslide, Pelura said, which motivates him to work at reinvigorating Republican registration efforts while also targeting young and independent voters.

At the Howard County election board Friday, three voters expressed varying motivations as they registered.

Song Pak, 30, an Ellicott City real estate broker, has lived in the United States for 16 years, but became a citizen two weeks ago, he said.

"It's my first time ever voting," he said as he registered unaffiliated to give himself time to get his political bearings.

David Kowarski, 50, of Ellicott City changed registration from Democrat to Republican to help influence selection of the GOP's presidential nominee, he said.

"I thought the Democratic nominee was probably already decided [in favor of Hillary Clinton]," he said. His daughter Lisa, 17, also registered as a Republican to support Mitt Romney.

Carmen Mister, 37, of Columbia had moved from Randallstown in May, but didn't want to miss the chance to vote for Sen. Barack Obama, a Democrat from Illinois.

"My great-grandparents fought for my right to vote," through their civil rights activities decades ago, she said. And she wants her son, Ryan McCready, 14, to have a black leader to admire who isn't an athlete or entertainer.

This cycle's registration has been marked a new wrinkle: 17-year-olds signing up to participate in the primary. State elections Administrator Linda Lamone said 3,565 such voters, who will turn 18 before the general election Nov. 4, registered in the month since Dec. 19, when the state reversed an earlier decision to bar these youngest voters from the primary.

Overall, she said, 7,479 registrations had been filed by 17-year-olds as of Thursday. Interest appeared to vary significantly around the state: A lone 17-year-old registered in Somerset County, while 748 signed up in Montgomery.

Marcus Knight, a 17-year-old senior at Ellicott City's Mount Hebron High School, filled out a voter registration form at school recently, filing as a Democrat and sure his candidate will win.

"Obama's going to be the first African-American to be president," said Knight.

Mike Cascio, 17, who registered at the same time, will be 18 in October, a month before the general election. He is a Republican.

"I want to take part and get my candidate elected. I'd like to see [Rudolph W. Giuliani] win," he said, explaining that he agrees with most of the former New York mayor's positions on the war, crime, immigration and taxes.

larry.carson@baltsun.com

The voters by the numbers

In Maryland, 3.1 million people are registered as of Thursday, including 7,479 who are 17.

Voters between age 17 and 24 number 295,517.

Those 65 and older number 553,814, according to state elections officials.

Of the total, 55.3 percent are registered Democrats, 28.4 percent are Republicans, and 32.7 percent are unaffiliated or members of other parties.

The Green party had 7,947 registered voters as of Jan. 1. Libertarians numbered 5,148.

Registration details

The deadline to register to vote in Maryland's Feb. 12 presidential primary election is 9 p.m. tomorrow. Voters must visit their local election board and register or mail a registration form postmarked no later than tomorrow.

Seventeen-year-olds who will turn 18 before the Nov. 4 general election also may register for the primary, and can vote in the Democratic or Republican contests.

Forms are available at a variety of government and public offices and at www.elections.state.md.us.

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