Voters' commute may hurt turnout

Faced with difficult drive to polls, up to 3 percent don't go, study finds

Howard County

March 02, 2003|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Add one more sin to the evils of suburban sprawl - commuter fatigue that can theoretically cut voter turnout 2 percent to 3 percent in some precincts.

In a close race like the 2000 presidential contest, that can be a vital difference, according to a research paper on voting that year in Howard, Frederick and Montgomery counties by University of Maryland political scientist James G. Gimpel.

His theory is simple enough, though not everyone agrees with the concept - that after a long, traffic-clogged drive to and from work, with family waiting at home, some marginally committed voters may skip their patriotic duty rather than face another 5-mile drive to vote. The less convenient the polling place, the more people will skip voting.

"There have been many studies of people's motivation, but it's pretty hard to do something about people's motivation. Some of these convenience factors we can actually do something about," Gimpel said.

"There are people who start out well before 6 a.m. and have a very narrow window for voting. If there's [traffic] congestion, they're not going to go," he said.

"It sounds like it makes a whole lot of sense to me," said Barbara Cooper, Howard County election board chairwoman.

But she, like other election officials, said increasing the number of precincts to make them closer to voters is expensive, and Election Day poll judges are harder and harder to find.

Still, because of fast growth, Frederick County election board director Stuart Harvey has recommended increasing the number of polling places there from 38 to 58, since the number of voters has doubled during the last decade to 120,000.

Gimpel suggests more numerous, if smaller, polling places; making Election Day a national holiday; voting by mail; and finding more convenient locations for voting, even if not every precinct is handicapped accessible.

He looked at the voter turnout in all 363 precincts in the three counties and compared them to a mean figure. He then used a series of complex economic forecasting formulas to account for other factors to arrive at a conclusion.

According to Gimpel's analysis, to be published in June in the Journal of Political Geography, the inconvenience of voting mainly affects large precincts on the "suburban fringes" while those in densely populated areas like Columbia, Bethesda and Chevy Chase, or in truly rural, less congested sections, vote in slightly higher numbers.

Other factors, such as single parenthood, lack of transportation and poverty, also cut into voter turnout, but he argues that convenience may be the most practical issue to resolve.

Texas, California and Oregon, he notes, are experimenting with voting by mail, voting at convenience stores, supermarkets and in modular trailers.

State election administrator Linda H. Lamone said the whole concept of voting by precinct is being examined with a view to a possibly electronic future, something local election officials see coming too.

"The trend in years to come is that everybody will have a smart card to allow you to go anywhere to vote and still come up with the right ballot," said Evelyn Purcell, deputy election administrator in Howard County.

Election judges

Lamone said Maryland had to find 18,000 judges for polling places the in November election last year. Having more polling places would likely mean higher costs to the county.

Margaret A. Jurgensen, election director for the Montgomery County election board, said she discussed voting with her high school- and college-age nieces in December.

"Why do we have to go to a school [to vote]?" they asked. "Why can't we go vote when we're in the mall?"

Jurgensen said that in years to come, voting may take place over a period of time by mail or electronically, rather than on one day, which should address the convenience problems.

For now, however, "one of the last things we're going to be looking at is expanding the number of precincts" because of the difficulty and expense of finding more places and more poll judges.

Making Election Day a national holiday is a bad idea, she and others said, because some people would simply take that as an excuse for a four-day weekend and go out of town.

Still, large suburban precincts where people must drive 5 miles or more to vote can be a problem.

In Howard County, for example, 3,000 people are registered to vote at the Lisbon Elementary School in the far western county, while fewer than half that are the norm in Columbia, where more people can walk to their polling places.

Not a hassle to all

Still, Linda Noyes, who votes at Lisbon and commutes to Laurel for work each day, said the 5 to 7 miles she must drive past her home to vote after working doesn't dissuade her, especially in a presidential election.

"I don't think it's a hassle at all. At the end of the day, you run into all your neighbors," she said.

Maryland voted so heavily for Democrat Al Gore in 2000, (57 percent to 40 percent) that a 3 percent increase in George W. Bush's tally would have made no difference, but in other races it could have been significant.

GOP popularity

In many fringe suburbs, Republicans are most popular, but Louis M. Pope, Howard County Republican Party chairman, and Republican county Councilman Christopher J. Merdon of Ellicott City said that means convenience may be less of a factor in the outcome.

"I disagree it's been a factor in Howard County," Pope said.

Merdon said western county Republicans like state Sen. Robert H. Kittleman and his county councilman son, Allan H. Kittleman, typically win easy victories.

If an election is likely to be close, Pope said, people will more likely vote.

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