Voters shift party loyalty Republicans say registration efforts boost their chances

Independents may be key

Democrats, GOP vie for rising numbers of unaffiliated voters

Campaign 1998

August 16, 1998|By William F. Zorzi Jr. | William F. Zorzi Jr.,SUN STAFF

Maryland Republicans are continuing to make impressive gains in voter registration, putting more than twice as many voters on the books as Democrats in the past four years, the latest figures from the state election board show.

At the same time, the number of voters who have declined to affiliate with either major party has skyrocketed 39 percent since July 1994, the registration numbers show.

"That's a staggering figure," said Tom Surock, the state election board's director of voter registration.

As both parties gear up for the November general election, it is clear that the battle for these new independent voters -- almost 85,000 since 1994 -- will be far more important than ever before.

"The independents are going to be critical in this election," said Joyce Lyons Terhes, chairwoman of the Maryland Republican Party.

Marcela E. K. Howell, spokeswoman for the Maryland Democratic Party, said Democrats will concentrate their get-out-the-vote efforts on the new registrants, particularly the independents.

"We will go out and try to woo them to the Democratic side," she said.

Since Gov. Parris N. Glendening's defeat of Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey by 5,993 votes in 1994, the state GOP has been working steadily to increase its numbers and has succeeded in outpacing the Democrats, the state's majority party.

"The numbers are in our favor," said Terhes. "In addition to new registrations, we've been encouraging Democrats to change parties, and it's been working." The GOP has seen a net gain in registrations of 97,213 since July 31, 1994, while Democrats have increased their numbers by 45,503. Registered Republicans are in the majority in six of Maryland's 24 subdivisions, an increase of two counties since 1994.

Democrats still outnumber Republicans 1.9-to-1 in Maryland, but new GOP registrations and the increase in the number of independent voters are chipping away at their lead. As recently as 25 years ago, Democrats outnumbered Republicans by nearly JTC 3-to-1.

Democrats played down the significance of the GOP's four-year gains, focusing instead on increases for them since January of this year, when Democrats began their voter registration drive.

"We've launched a voter registration campaign over the last six months, and we've out-registered them almost 2-to-1," said Howell, the Democrats' spokeswoman. "Those are the numbers we think are the most exciting for us and the most pertinent for this election."

In July 1994, Democrats accounted for 61.5 percent of the state's 2.3 million registered voters, while Republicans made up 29 percent and independents trailed at 9.5 percent.

This year, Democrats make up 58 percent of the state's 2.5 million voters, Republicans 30 percent and independents 12 percent. Fewer than 1 percent of residents -- 1,619 -- have registered with the Reform Party of H. Ross Perot.

With tomorrow the deadline for voters to register for the Sept. 15 primary election, election board figures show there are 1,462,470 Democrats, 765,499 Republicans and 303,206 independents registered in Maryland.

Independents are not permitted to vote in primaries.

The surge in the number of independents has come primarily from those registering at state Motor Vehicle Administration offices under the "motor-voter" law that took effect Jan. 1, 1995.

Surock said the majority of new registrants who sign up as independents do so at the MVA. Neither he nor other political observers could explain why.

Signup deadline

Tomorrow is the deadline for registering to vote in the Sept. 15 primary election.

Completed registration forms must be received by local election boards by 9 p.m. Mail-in registrations must be postmarked no later than tomorrow.

Voter registration forms can be picked up at offices of the Motor Vehicle Administration, the state health department, the local Department of Social Services, the Office on Aging or the Division of Rehabilitation Services. In addition, forms are available at marriage license bureaus, community colleges, post offices and public libraries.

Election boards will remain open until 9 p.m. tomorrow to receive applications.

In some counties, election boards will set up satellite offices to take applications. For more information, call the state election board at 800-222-VOTE (-8683).

SOURCE: State Administrative Board of Election Laws

Pub Date: 8/16/98

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