Droves of new voters sign up

Record registration numbers swamp Md. elections officials

11 percent increase since 2000

Election 2004

October 10, 2004|By Matthew Dolan | Matthew Dolan,SUN STAFF

Besieged state election officials are staying late, working weekends and hiring additional help to process a record number of people registering to vote for the fall election.

Days before the deadline, nearly 3 million Marylanders are eligible to cast ballots next month, more than 10 percent more than the number who signed up in time for the 2000 election.

Voters in Maryland have until 9 p.m. Tuesday to complete their registration forms and get them by mail or in person to their local boards of election.

Democrats lead the race to sign up new voters, maintaining their nearly 2-to-1 margin over the GOP statewide. But independents and Republicans have also made substantial strides, especially in some suburban counties.

Political observers think new voters have been galvanized nationally by the presidential contest, remembering with glee or disgust the razor-thin margin four years ago.

"The whole bunch - Bush, Cheney - they gotta go," said Theodore Wallace, 77, of West Baltimore, who picked up registration forms for his family last week from the election board office in Baltimore, where Democrats overwhelmingly outnumber Republicans.

Minutes later, he was joined in the line by Claire Kew, who said she wants to vote to make sure that "we finish what we started in Iraq."

Kew, 27, recently moved to Baltimore from Ohio to study French at the Johns Hopkins University. She had filled out a voter registration form on campus but went to the election board to make sure it was on record.

That kind of passion surprises some longtime political watchers, who note that Maryland does not have a closely fought election on the state level and isn't considered a swing state that could tip the outcome of the presidential race.

The surge here in voter registration reflects a national trend. Georgia is on a pace for a 50 percent increase in new voters, and the Ohio county that includes Cincinnati has at least twice as many new voter registrations as it did four years ago.

In Carroll County, voter registration is up 20 percent. Barbara E. Jackson, the Baltimore City Board of Elections administrator, said, "We haven't had this much activity in about 15 years."

According to the latest statistics, 2,891,145 voters had registered in Maryland as of Aug. 31, 11 percent more than had registered four years ago.

Since January, more than 90,000 voters have been added to the state's rolls. More than 27,000 registered in August.

Local election officials also report an increase in the number of voters asking for absentee ballots. But officials say some voters inquiring about absentee ballots seem to be worried about the reliability of Maryland's new electronic voting system, which under the law is not a valid reason to seek an absentee ballot.

The voter registration tempo is expected to pick up as Tuesday's deadline approaches. Late last week, callers to the Baltimore County election office often heard a recorded message saying that workers were too busy to answer the phone.

"We're running about a week behind normal, and we're quite frankly swamped," said Catherine O. Davis, the Allegany County elections administrator. "It's 12 hours a day and five or six days a week."

Maryland Democrats have posted the largest number of additional voters since 2000, and registrations of independents are outpacing those of Republicans by almost 10,000.

Still, the GOP is gaining ground in the fast-growing counties between the population centers in Baltimore and suburban Washington, said Thomas Schaller, a political science professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. In Anne Arundel County, Democrats' dominance has been cut in half.

"We've taken the lead in Calvert County, and we're closing the gap in St. Mary's and Harford counties," said Deborah Martinez, communications director for the Maryland Republican Party.

Individual political campaigns and grass-roots organizations have found that they hardly need to ask for help to corral potential voters this year.

"We've never had this much interest from volunteers before," said Jacqueline Richardson, chairwoman for voter empowerment at the Baltimore chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which has registered more than 2,800 voters since May.

Marvin L. Cheatham, producer of a voter education show on radio station WOLB, 1010 AM, called the election season "the most exciting time in terms of voter registration since 1968."

Matthew Crenson, a political science professor at the John Hopkins University, said the tight race between President Bush and Democratic challenger John Kerry is the impetus behind the registration rush. In Maryland, Kerry leads Bush 52 percent to 42 percent in the latest Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies poll, which was released last week.

Democrat Al Gore won the state by 17 percentage points in 2000.

This year, campaigns launched by independent, technologically knowledgeable organizations such as Moveon.org have charged up a primed electorate, Crenson said. But gains in voter registration are no guarantee that more voters will go to the polls.

"Whether they're going to vote," Crenson said, "that's still up in the air."

Information www.elections.state.md.us or 800-222-8683.

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