For the past eight years, when conservatives have held virtually every elected seat in Carroll, the county's moderates and reformers could only watch in frustration and complain that builders had gained an upper hand in land-use debates, that too much policy-making was occurring in closed meetings and that relations with Democrats in Annapolis were worsening.
But today, in what many candidates and community leaders have described as a potentially groundbreaking election, Carroll voters will select from a group of eight commissioner hopefuls who have promised a new era of slower growth, more open meetings and greater cooperation with state leaders.
In other races, South Carroll voters will elect their own state delegate for the first time, and members of the county's conservative delegation to Annapolis will hope to fend off the same movement for change that cost two incumbent commissioners their jobs in the primary Sept. 10.
"People were just so tired of what they were getting that they wouldn't let it happen again," said Democratic candidate Betty Smith. "You're going to see a huge change no matter who gets elected now. It's been a historic year for Carroll County."
Polls open at 7 a.m. and close at 8 p.m. County election officials say they would be happy with 50 percent turnout among the county's 87,000 registered voters. Republicans outnumber Democrats by more than 14,000 among the county's registered voters.
"I think people are interested in the governor's race and, in this county, people are very interested in the commissioners' race," said Patricia Matsko, supervisor of elections for the county. "That should mean a pretty good showing."
Carroll voters supported Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey heavily in the 1994 and 1998 gubernatorial elections, and Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has said he expects to win by a large margin in the county. Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend has not visited Carroll since before the primary.
Noting strong support for Ehrlich and for conservative state legislators, observers say the county is as conservative as ever, despite the results of the commissioners' primary race.
"I don't think you can say, based on three commissioner candidates, whether a county has become more or less conservative," said Robert Wolfing, chairman of the county's Republican State Central Committee.
About 70,000 voters will see a different combination of choices because of legislative redistricting implemented this year. The biggest change will affect Sykesville, Eldersburg and the rest of South Carroll, an area that makes up the newly formed District 9B, where voters will select their own state delegate for the first time. Some voters on the county's western side will be voting in District 4 instead of District 5. Despite the changes, county election officials say they have not fielded many questions about redistricting.
The commissioner candidates have slogged through more than a dozen forums, waved to passing cars from busy intersections, campaigned door to door in the crowded subdivisions of South Carroll and filled newspaper space and radio time with advertisements.
The race took a major turn in the primary when incumbents Donald I. Dell and Robin Bartlett Frazier lost decisively and fellow conservatives Ed Primoff and David Brauning were defeated.
Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge was the only incumbent to survive the Republican primary. Gouge battled Dell and Frazier on major policy decisions for much of the past four years and ran on a reform platform, saying the county must slow residential growth and forge better relations with state leaders. Dell and Frazier often sparred with Gov. Parris N. Glendening and state planning officials over Smart Growth.
Longtime local newspaper columnist and editor Dean Minnich received the most votes in the primary. Minnich said he entered the race because he saw the county's quality of life slipping and worried that large landowners and developers were exerting too much influence on the commissioners.
Union Bridge Mayor Perry L. Jones Jr. finished third in the Republican primary after running as a Democrat in 1998. Jones, one of the few blacks elected to public office in Carroll, has pointed to his experience - 12 years as mayor - and ability to get along with people from across the county's political spectrum.
Sensing change in the air, county Democrats have argued this might be their year to win at least one commissioner seat.
Neil Ridgely has made his reputation as a vocal activist on land-use and environmental issues. He says he more than any other candidate would push for open government and offer creative solutions to Carroll's efforts to manage residential growth and attract businesses.