Citizens elect to get out the vote

With primary days away, volunteers put in work to get candidates in office

Maryland Votes 2006 Primary Tuesday

September 10, 2006|By Jennifer Skalka and Matthew Hay Brown | Jennifer Skalka and Matthew Hay Brown,Sun reporters

Swarms of volunteers brandishing campaign signs, sample ballots and telephone lists are fanning out across Maryland this weekend, hoping to push their favored candidates for U.S. Senate and other offices to victory in Tuesday's primary election.

Union members, liberal activists and grass-roots supporters are knocking on doors and waving placards on street corners across the state - part of a get-out-the-vote effort that is especially critical in non-presidential campaign years, when turnout is lower and the motivations of voters are uncertain.

The candidates are urging their troops on, knowing that a final telephone call or offer of a ride to the polls can be just as important as the millions they have spent on television and radio advertisements.

Robert Horton Sr., who hosted an East Baltimore house party yesterday for Democratic Senate hopeful Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin and others, said that he walked in his neighborhood - megaphone in hand - for Cardin this weekend.

Horton spent yesterday afternoon barbecuing ribs, hamburgers and chicken on a huge grill as Cardin and other politicians urged party attendees to vote this week.

The team of Democratic Senate candidate Kweisi Mfume, a former congressman and past head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, also knows the importance of the last weekend before the primary.

"For us right now, turnout is everything," said Mark Clack, Mfume's campaign manager.

At Montgomery County Education Association headquarters in Rockville yesterday, teachers planning to work the polls Tuesday picked up tote bags stuffed with "apple ballots," fliers praising "teacher-recommended candidates" that they will hand to undecided voters.

"Every bit of our job is controlled by public officials," said Silver Spring teacher Eric Luedtke, who was scheduling volunteer poll workers for the county's 245 voting precincts. "I couldn't do what I do without the support of the people we endorse."

Candidates have worked for months to obtain the kind of endorsements that bring with them legions of volunteers.

The four most important labor endorsements - which typically go to Democratic candidates - are the AFL-CIO, Maryland State Teachers Association, State Employees International Union and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said Rob Johnson, former head of the state Democratic Party who is now an Annapolis lobbyist.

But with so many high-profile Democrats seeking an open U.S. Senate position and Maryland's 3rd District congressional seat, it is the work of candidates and their supporters - not labor groups and others - that will make the most difference this year, Johnson said.

"You're going to see an Oldsmobile version of get-out-the-vote, not a Cadillac version," he said. "It's going to be definitely more campaign-driven."

In recent years, Republicans have perfected voter drives in national elections, but that effort won't been seen in Maryland for another two months. There are few competitive GOP primaries - Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele is expected to cruise to nomination for the Senate, for example.

But for other candidates, pulling voters to the polls is critical to their chances.

"We need our base and those people that support us to maintain their intensity and to also have knowledge of the election and where they need to go to vote," said Clack of the Mfume campaign.

Cardin's supporters, too, are focused, targeting uncommitted voters and dispatching teams across the state to urge people to cast their ballots. Cardin volunteers have set a goal of knocking on 75,000 doors at least twice by Tuesday, according to the campaign. An anticipated 1,250 supporters will hit the ground on primary day.

"Right now, thousands of volunteers are working day and night to help get out the vote for Ben Cardin," said Oren Shur, a Cardin campaign spokesman.

Zach Messitte, director of the Center for the Study of Democracy at St. Mary's College of Maryland, said voter turnout efforts are most important during mid-term primary elections.

"The people who come out traditionally in primaries are the people who are the most partisan and the most involved," he said. "So anybody else who you can get from beyond that group, that you can get out to benefit your cause, is critical to your campaign." Ernie Grecco, president of the Metropolitan Baltimore Council of the AFL-CIO, said the organization is attempting to reach each of its 175,000 members several different ways. The Maryland AFL-CIO endorsed Cardin, a 10-term congressman, early in the contest.

"We did some mailings. We've been phoning. We've been door-knocking to our members. We had a booth at the Maryland State Fair. We're lining people up to work the polls. We're going to be taking retirees to the polls. We're going to be knocking on doors on Election Day to get people to go out and vote," Grecco said.

"Other than that," he said jokingly, "we ain't doing nothing."

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