Registered Republican voters maintained an edge over Democrats in Carroll entering yesterday's primary, for the first time since the election office began keeping records in the mid-1950s.
County Democratic leaders say the latest figures finally represent a more accurate picture of the way Carroll residents have voted for years -- about evenly split between the two parties.
Republican officials view the turnabout as a clear sign of the GOP's surging popularity, voter registration efforts and increased potential for success at the polls.
The affect of voter registration changes on primaries is hard to gauge, said officials from both parties. They agreed increased numbers on both sides make it more important than ever for candidates to target their most likely supporters, especially newer residents, and encourage them to vote.
"It means it's a more decisive vote on who has worked the hardest," said Carroll Republican Central Committee Vice Chairman Edwin E. Rash.
The influx of new residents in the last two decades -- voter registration has doubled from 27,623 in 1972 to 54,139 -- means candidates in both primaries and general elections can't rely on old political ties to carry them to victory, said Gregory Pecoraro, chairman of the Carroll Democratic Central Committee.
"Newer residents will be willing to vote for people who haven't lived in Carroll all their lives," he said. "People who are long-time incumbents who haven't faced serious challenges in the past may lose some of their invulnerability."
Republicans outnumber Democrats in the county by 785 -- 25,572 to 24,787 -- as of Aug. 13, the last pre-primary tally from the Carroll Board of Elections. They gained an advantage for the first time last spring, when registration lists were purged of voters who had not participated in elections for five years.
The nearly even split between the parties means no candidates will get a "free ride" in the general election, said Pecoraro.
"Democrats will have to work hard and Republicans will have to work hard," he said. "There will continue to be hard-fought, close contests in November. Carroll County will continue to be the most competitive in the state."
Carroll, Allegany and Garrett are the only areas with a majority of registered Republicans among the 23 counties and Baltimore City. The state has about 1.33 million registered Democrats and 606,000 Republicans.
GOP and Democratic leaders agree countians traditionally have not voted strictly along party lines, especially in county races.
"Since I came here 20 years ago, the county has elected Republicans even when voter registration was rather heavily Democratic," said Donald Taylor, GOP Central Committee chairman.
Two out of three commissioners and three of six General Assembly members elected in 1982 were Republican, although registered Democrats outnumbered Republicans by nearly 7,000.
"Eyebrows were always raised because we had the edge in the Democratic Party, but did poorly in the general election, especially on the national level," said Scott Markle, Carroll Democratic Club president.
Of registered voters changing their affiliation this year, more have converted from Democrat to Republican than vice versa, say Rosemary L. McCloskey, Board of Elections chief clerk.
Of the 14 voting districts in Carroll, 10 now have Republican majorities, although margins are slim. Democrats claimed the majority of voters in nine districts in 1986 and 12 in 1982.
The most significant changes have occurred in the Woolerys District (which includes Finksburg and Sandymount) and Westminster, large districts where Republicans have overtaken former Democratic strongholds.
The Eldersburg and Berrett districts in South Carroll remain the strongest Democratic area. However, Republicans have shown an increase of 2,548 registered voters in those areas since 1982, while Democrats show 852.