Montgomery seeks to ensure safety of voters

Sniper fears might mean lower turnout in county

Rise seen in absentee ballots

Officials meet with police to discuss possible steps

Election 2002

October 22, 2002|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

With more than $7.7 million raised so far, the 8th District in Montgomery and Prince George's counties is the site of the nation's most expensive congressional race. It's also a critical campaign stop in the gubernatorial race.

But all of that cash and campaigning will mean little if voters are too fearful of the Washington-area sniper to go to the polls Nov. 5.

Like everybody else, officials at the Montgomery County Board of Elections are hoping the sniper is caught soon. But if the killer remains at large on Election Day, the county is exploring ways to keep people feeling safe at polling places.

One such measure is making sure residents won't be standing around outside for extended periods while waiting to vote.

"We are meeting with the Police Department this week, and one of the things we are considering is that instead of the line forming outside buildings, we'd allow them to queue up inside the buildings while they prepare to vote," Election Director Margaret A. Jurgensen said yesterday. She said that might mean opening up polling places earlier than normal.

The county, which has 237 polling places, was the scene of the sniper's first five killings on Oct. 2 and 3.

The shootings have already had an impact on the election season - campaign appearances have been canceled, television ads have been bumped and campaign volunteers have reported anxiety about continuing to go door to door.

"I think it very definitely has affected door-to-door, and I know there is concern it could affect voter turnout," said Karen McManus, a volunteer for the congressional campaign of Democrat Christopher Van Hollen Jr.

Said Van Hollen yesterday: "The whole sniper situation is of concern for a whole lot of reasons. I think most people still want to participate in the election process."

Van Hollen's opponent, Republican Constance A. Morella, said yesterday she is trying to set an example for constituents by proceeding with her campaign routine as best as she can. "I'm still knocking on doors," Morella said. "And when I do that, I think I'm a comfort to the people at home. I mean, if I'm out there doing that, people say, `Hey it must be all right.' "

The 8th District race is considered crucial by both national parties in the battle for control of the House. The region is also important for Democrats in statewide races because Montgomery is the state's most populous county.

The parties have been letting voters know they have until Oct. 29 to request absentee ballots in Montgomery County.

The ballots are supposed to be used for specific circumstances - such as absences, illnesses or various academic obligations - but some campaign officials say the numbers of absentees could rise if people remain skittish about being outdoors.

Applications for absentee ballots in the county are running slightly ahead of the pace set in 1998, when there were about 10,000 such ballots in the county.

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