Marylanders cast votes with touch of the screen

School boards, judgeships on ballot in some locales

Election 2004

Super Tuesday

March 02, 2004|By Ariel Sabar | Ariel Sabar,SUN STAFF

Maryland voters will choose candidates for the presidency, Congress and some local school boards and judgeships today in a primary that will also serve as an unofficial referendum on the state's new touch-screen voting machines.

State election officials say the hotly contested presidential race at the top of the Democratic ballot could draw as many as 40 percent of Maryland's 1.6 million Democrats to the polls, which would be the biggest turnout since 1992.

The rain in today's forecast could discourage some voters. But far more pivotal for turnout, say political analysts, will be whether Democrats see their vote as making a difference so late in the primary season.

Maryland is partly at a disadvantage on that score. Its primary falls weeks after the New Hampshire and Iowa contests, and on a day when nine other states, including New York and California, also go to the polls.

Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, the party's front-runner with a gaping delegate lead, and North Carolina Sen. John Edwards have made one Maryland campaign stop each. They bought no television ads here and have largely invested their time and money in Ohio, California, New York and Georgia, all with bigger delegate prizes.

Even so, Super Tuesday is no empty exercise. Up for grabs in the primary season's biggest day of balloting are 1,151 delegates, more than half of the 2,162 needed to seal the nomination.

Stirring perhaps more interest than the campaigns here is the debut in most Maryland precincts today of touch-screen voting machines. The state bought 16,000 of the automated-teller-machine-like devices for $55.6 million in response to state and federal requirements for new voting technology after the disputed presidential election in 2000, the year of the hanging chad.

Security experts and other critics have said the machines are vulnerable to manipulation, and a Takoma Park woman has organized a campaign against them. But state officials and the machines' maker, Diebold Election Systems of Ohio, have tried to win over voters with demonstrations at supermarkets, senior centers and churches in recent months in an effort to win over voters.

"It's very intuitive and easy to use," Linda H. Lamone, administrator of the state Board of Elections, says of the touch-screen device. "Voters love it."

The devices are replacing a mishmash of voting systems, including antiquated lever and punch-card machines, and newer optical scanners.

The machines were used in four Maryland counties in 2002. Today, voters will use them everywhere except Baltimore, which will rely on its own electronic voting devices through 2006.

Maryland has tried over the years to infuse its presidential primary with more sizzle.

In 1988, the General Assembly moved the primary from May to March, part of a multistate effort to steal some of the spotlight from New Hampshire and Iowa with a Southern regional primary, now known as Super Tuesday.

The objections of some lawmakers at the time, that Maryland's primary would get lost in the crowd of bigger states voting that day, proved prophetic.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, Jr., a sponsor of the 1986 legislation shifting the primary date, made another push for better publicity last year with a bill to move the primary to February. That measure stalled amid concerns, among other things, that winter storms might hold down the turnout.

Without Kerry and Edwards around to generate local headlines and energize supporters, the campaigns here have sent in surrogates such as Kerry's stepson and Edwards' wife for brief visits. The hard work of courting voters has fallen mostly to grassroots volunteer efforts to phone voters, leaflet on street corners and organize gatherings for supporters at bars and restaurants.

The state Democratic Party allocates 69 delegates to the summer's Democratic National Convention in Boston on the basis of the popular vote. An additional 30 from Maryland are super-delegates, members of Congress and other party leaders who usually line up behind the voters' choice even though are technically free to back whom they please.

As of Feb. 10, the last day to register for the primaries, Maryland had 1,572,101 registered Democrats, 842,798 Republicans, 6,230 Greens and 398,799 independents. Maryland's presidential, congressional and judicial primaries this year are open only to registered Democrats and Republicans. All voters, including independents and Greens, may vote in the school board elections, which are nonpartisan.

Six Maryland members of the U.S. House and U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, face challengers today, but none is in danger of defeat.

The only congressional primaries with even a flicker of suspense are races involving Republicans Reps. Roscoe G. Bartlett of Western Maryland and Wayne T. Gilchrest of the Eastern Shore. Their respective challengers, Frederick County State's Attorney Scott L. Rolle and state Sen. Richard F. Colburn, have built their campaigns around accusations that the incumbents are too liberal.

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