Last-minute registration of voters may hit new low CAMPAIGN 1994

August 12, 1994|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Sun Staff Writer

The latest statistics from the county election board look dismal -- except for politicians. For them, the numbers aren't so bad, they say.

But unless several hundred people register to vote before the 9 p.m. deadline Monday, Howard County will have hit a new low for registrations the month before a primary.

Since Aug. 1, only 574 people have registered, which "is not very much," says Barbara Feaga, the election board administrator.

In the month before the 1992 primary, for example, 2,244 people signed up. The 1992 figures could be skewed since it was a presidential election year. But even in 1990, the figures for the month before the primary were almost double what they are now, with 1,101 voters registering.

"It's not a good feeling," says Ms. Feaga, who worries that the figures may been an indication of voter apathy.

Local Republican Central Committee Chairman Allan H. Kittleman says he is "somewhat surprised" by the dearth of last-minute voter registrations, but not overly concerned. With so many local races contested in primaries -- 12 for Democrats, nine for the Republicans -- "I would have expected it to be hotter," he says. "They are not the numbers one expects to have."

expect larger numbers this year is a logical assumption. In 1990, most candidates, including the governor, were running for re-election. There were very few open seats.

This year, there are vacancies in the governor's office, the state's attorney's office, and two on the County Council. Due to redistricting, there are also four new General Assembly races. Usually, that's a sure-fire prescription for voter excitement.

But not this year, apparently. More than 100 shoppers picked at random during a 90-minute span at an Elkridge shopping center recently were asked if they knew there was a local election. None did. Pressed further, most knew that there was a gubernatorial election this fall, but could not name the candidates.

Republican Carol A. Arscott, vice president of Mason-Dixon Campaign Polling and Strategy, said she was not really surprised by the "anecdotal evidence" gained at the shopping center.

"It takes years for an elected official to build up name recognition that lasts," she said. "You build a little bit at a time each election, but it is years and years before [a candidate's name] is anywhere near a household word."

Carole Fisher, chairwoman of the county Democratic State Central Committee, says it's one thing to ask people at random if they know anything about next month's primary and another to set up an information booth, as local party activists have done in recent weeks.

"It's like [actor] Kevin Costner in [the movie] 'Field of Dreams,' " she said. "Set up a booth and the people will come. The first thing they want to know is who's running in their district," she said. "At this point [32 days before the election], all you can do is be helpful or try."

Ms. Fisher has compiled an index of street names and crossed referenced them according to various local races so she can tell people stopping by the Democratic booth at the Howard County Fair this weekend what races will be occurring in their neighborhoods.

Republicans will offer similar information at their booth at the fair. Both parties will be registering as many voters as they can.

The 9 p.m. deadline for voter registration applies only to the Sept. 13 primary. The board will reopen again Sept. 26 to sign up voters for the Nov. 8 general election.

Ms. Fisher and Mr. Kittleman don't worry as much about primary registration numbers as they do party registrations for the general election. Both say the numbers are favorable to their parties.

"We're not off that much -- there's not been a significant drop" since the 1990 election, Ms. Fisher said, pointing to statistics that show Democrats making up 51.4 percent of the voters in February 1990, 50.6 percent in February 1992, and 49.5 percent last February.

Since February, that percentage has increased to 49.95 percent. "We're actually very pleased," Ms. Fisher said. "Every time I go to campaign headquarters [in Ellicott City], I pick up seven or eight messages including two or three from people who say they want to get involved."

Mr. Kittleman says similar things on behalf of Republicans. "The numbers are still favorable to us," he said. "With a Democrat in the White House they have not gained as much as might have been expected. The ratio [of Democrats to Republicans] is still about 1.38 to 1."

Ms. Arscott agrees. "Bill Clinton has slowed us down, but he hasn't changed the ratio," she said. "The numbers are not monstrous enough to move the ratio. We're just hanging right in there."

Ms. Fisher thinks the Democrats are making a move. She points to a registration drive conducted in county high schools in May and June in which Democrats came up with 42.3 percent of the 1,278 students registered. Republicans registered 26 percent.

The fact that 30 percent of the students registered independent most worries Ms. Arscott.

"It is very, very disturbing," she said, "because people registering independent are much less likely to vote. As a person who believes in the two-party system, that is not good news for us. We are not capturing their hearts and minds."

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