State election officials expect a strong turnout today as Maryland voters go to the polls to help elect a president, pick nine members of Congress and decide a list of contentious local issues.
At the top of the ballot, Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush will battle for Maryland's 10 electoral votes, a small fraction of the 538 up for grabs nationally.
U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes is seeking a fifth six-year term against Republican Paul H. Rappaport, the former Howard County police chief. And all eight members of the House of Representatives from Maryland are running for another two-year term.
The state is expected to see few surprises today. All nine congressional incumbents are viewed as substantial favorites and heavily Democratic Maryland is considered safely in Gore's column, according to recent polls and interviews with political analysts.
Although both presidential candidates have generally ignored Maryland - sparing voters here the onslaught of ads beamed into battleground states such as Pennsylvania - election officials expect the tight national race to spur a healthy turnout across the state.
John T. Willis, Maryland's secretary of state and an authority on presidential elections in the state, predicted that about three-quarters of the state's 2.7 million voters would cast ballots. "The biggest factor driving turnout is the competitiveness of the race," Willis said.
A 75 percent turnout would be close to the state's recent average.
In 1992, the turnout in Maryland shot up to 81 percent, thanks to a compelling battle between Bill Clinton and George Bush, a statewide abortion referendum and a highly contested congressional race. Four years later, with a less competitive presidential race and few other exciting races, the turnout dropped to just less than 70 percent.
In both those elections, Clinton took Maryland, with 54 percent of the vote in 1992 and 50 percent in 1996.
Polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Voters in line at 8 p.m. will be allowed to cast a ballot, election officials said.
On the last full day of campaigning, some of Maryland's top Democrats zipped through several of the party's strongholds yesterday, beginning in Fells Point and ending in Silver Spring.
Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, who joined the tour despite not being on the ballot today, said she senses a high level of interest in the presidential race though both candidates have spent their time and money elsewhere.
"I think there is a lot of excitement," Mikulski said during a lunchtime stop at Lexington Market in downtown Baltimore. "It's the closest election I've seen since Kennedy-Nixon in 1960."
After a blitz of rallies Saturday, Republican Party officials focused yesterday on phone calls reminding their voters to get to the polls.
"Our base [of voters] is energized. We're just working toward getting our people to the polls," said Paul Ellington, executive director of the Maryland Republican Party. "The Democrats need a public display because they have a complacent electorate."
The most contested races in Maryland will likely be local ballot questions, particularly in Baltimore County, where voters will decide two hotly debated issues.
Voters are being asked to give county officials condemnation powers to redevelop deteriorating properties in Essex-Middle River, Dundalk and Reisterstown.
The county's voters will also decide whether to borrow $41 million for construction projects, including a major expansion of the jail in Towson.
Residents of the area have objected to the proposal. But even if voters reject the ballot question, county officials have said they will use other funds to proceed with a less ambitious expansion.
In Montgomery County, voters will decide whether to impose a two-term limit on county officials. Six of Montgomery's elected officials, including County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, would be prohibited from seeking a third term in 2002 if the ballot initiative passes.
Next door in Prince George's County, voters will decide whether to remove term limits put in place in 1992 for county officials. If voters leave the limits in place, eight Prince George's officials, including County Executive Wayne K. Curry, will be barred from seeking a third term in two years.
And in Wicomico County on the Eastern Shore, voters will decide two pocketbook referendums - one that could repeal a newly enacted transfer tax on real estate sales and another to impose a 2 percent annual cap on county spending increases.
Voters also will elect members of local school boards in Howard and Carroll counties.
In the Senate race, Sarbanes has easily outspent Rappaport, who has twice run unsuccessful statewide campaigns.
The liveliest of the state's eight House races has been in the 8th District in the Washington suburbs, where Capitol Hill lobbyist Terry L. Lierman is attempting to unseat Republican Rep. Constance A. Morella.