GOP adds more voters to rolls Republicans register 3 times as many names as Democrats since '94

March 15, 1998|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,SUN STAFF

Since the polls closed three years ago in one of the tightest gubernatorial races in Maryland history, Republicans have claimed almost three times as many new voters as Democrats, state election board figures show.

"The GOP's been doing a better job," said Larry S. Gibson, the Baltimore Democratic strategist who has been running campaigns and registering voters in Maryland for 30 years. "It's time for us to get going."

Since the 1994 election, when Gov. Parris N. Glendening defeated Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey by 5,993 votes, the GOP has added 66,898 names to its roll. The increase for Democrats is 23,007.

Both figures represent "net" changes, a bottom line reached after voters who have not participated in recent elections were moved to an inactive list.

The GOP's continuing new member recruitment success is further proof that 1998 will be a difficult election year for many Democratic candidates in Maryland. By steady effort over 15 years, the GOP has narrowed the Democrats' statewide voter registration lead from 3-to-1 to less than 2-to-1.

"There's been a real strong Republican resurgence," said Donald F. Norris, an associate professor of policy science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "You saw it in the 1994 election. You see it county elections, and Republican registration has followed it."

In 1990, Republicans held a majority of registered voters in only two of 23 Maryland counties. Now they claim six, and they are highly competitive in many more.

Most of the Republican gains have been made in the rural and suburban areas of the state, creating a somewhat polarized electorate -- Democrats clustered in urban areas and inner ring suburbs, Republicans elsewhere.

Democrats say the final, Election Day registration figures will again demonstrate their superior numbers, but Norris says the snapshot comparison of gains over the last three years shows that the trend is not in their direction.

"They are a party that doesn't seem to have a center," he said. "The GOP has a clearer vision and they sell that vision."

The Democrats, of course, have a booming economy and, in statewide offices, the power of incumbency. But the voter registration figures are alarming to some in the party.

In the three years since the last statewide election, Democrats have increased their numbers by only 2 percent while the GOP is 10 percent larger.

They also see a surge of Independent registrations -- up 30 percent from 1994.

Independents increasing

The Maryland trends follow an established shift toward Republicans and Independents at the national level, according to Curtis Gans of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate in Washington.

"Democrats have been losing registration for the last 30 years," he said. And Independents have shown increasing growth: "There's a falling away from the major parties. As you get younger voters you see less motivated, less partisan voters."

In Maryland, some of these new voters are registering at the Motor Vehicle Administration when they register their cars -- a result of the "Motor Voter" legislation enacted in 1995, which allows drivers to sign up to vote and declare their affiliations at the same time they register their cars.

Many of these registrants may be choosing Independent or "decline" because they simply haven't thought about their personal politics -- but others are looking for an alternative.

"In this state," said Norris, "registering Independent means you really don't want to participate in the nomination of candidates from any party."

In a closed primary system such as Maryland's, Independents can only vote in the general election, after the major parties have chosen their nominees. It's possible that some don't know this when they register.

Gans said the shift is not good news for Democrats, but he said the news could be worse: If voters weren't apparently turned off by both parties, the new Independents might well have gone to the Republicans, he said.

Still, some Democrats insist that their strength remains largely undiminished: Under the Motor Voter law, those who are moved to the inactive list because they haven't voted recently remain eligible and can return to the polls in November.

But many may not, and some Democrats are quietly but urgently calling for a partywide wake-up that recognizes a basic shift in the tenor of Maryland's political life.

Said Tim Phillips, campaign manager for Glendening this year, "We have to get our people registered and voting, and we have to reach out to the Independents because many of them will be motivated by the things this administration does well. Clearly, they're a battleground. They live in the suburban counties because that's where the growth is."

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