Md. turnout typical as U.S. figures rise

Sophisticated drives to get out the vote have little impact, but black turnout is high

Voters

Maryland Votes 2006

November 09, 2006|By Gadi Dechter | Gadi Dechter,SUN REPORTER

Despite aggressive get-out-the-vote efforts in Maryland by both major parties, turnout in Tuesday's election appeared to be no better than average for a gubernatorial election.

The unremarkable number put Maryland at odds with a nationwide trend of slightly higher turnouts, according to one national election expert.

"I'm surprised," said Curtis Gans, director of American University's Center for the Study of the American Electorate. "You had highly competitive races, very expensive, and by and large respectable people. Nobody was a devil."

About 1.6 million votes were cast electronically in Maryland's gubernatorial race, according to the state board of elections. Even if every one of the roughly 200,000 absentee paper ballots sent out in recent weeks is returned by the mid-November deadline -- usually, only 80 percent of such ballots are counted -- the total percentage of registered voters still appears unlikely to exceed the 60 percent turnout that is typical in a midterm election.

In 2002, 1.7 million votes were cast for governor, representing about 60 percent of registered voters. Voter registration in Maryland has grown by about 12 percent since then.

Maryland was in line with the rest of the country, however, in casting more votes for Democratic candidates than for their GOP opponents. That's not unusual for Maryland but notable across the country, said Gans.

"This is the first midterm election since 1990 that the Democratic votes nationally substantially exceeded the Republican vote," he said.

There was a feeling across the state Tuesday morning that turnout would be high, with reports of long lines at some polling places, particularly in Prince George's County.

But rain later in the day might have hampered turnout during the traditionally busy 5 p.m.-to-8 p.m. period, said Derek Walker, executive director of the state Democratic Party.

With 17 percent more registered voters than in 2002, Prince George's County has experienced one of the largest voter increases in Maryland. In 2002, about 195,000 votes were cast there. This year, the number of votes cast Tuesday for governor was about 190,000, with at least 9,000 absentee ballots yet to be counted.

But though the total number of votes cast in the county will increase over 2002, it appears unlikely to keep pace with the increased number of registered voters.

Historically, the total vote count in the gubernatorial race is just slightly less than the total number of ballots cast. Final election results won't be available until at least mid-November, when the final batch of absentee ballots is counted, officials said.

In the days preceding the election, both parties boasted about their extensive and sophisticated vote-flushing initiatives, with thousands of volunteers and hundreds of thousands of dollars directed at enticing voters to the polls.

Democrats and Republicans alike employed so-called "micro-targeting" strategies, where consumer data are merged with voter files to try and identify which voters might be more susceptible to particular campaign messages.

The unexceptional turnout underscores the limitations of such tactics, said James Gimpel, a University of Maryland political scientist.

"All the turnout technology in the world can't help you if the people view your message as wrong, or they view you as just not on their side," he said.

Though overall turnout was likely mediocre, exit polls suggested a higher-than-expected black turnout -- 23 percent of the total electorate -- which likely helped marquee Democratic candidates such as Mayor Martin O'Malley, who won the governor's race, and Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, who was elected to the U.S. Senate.

"The remarkable thing has to be the African-American turnout," said Matthew Crenson, a political science professor at the Johns Hopkins University. "[That] may have made all the difference."

gadi.dechter@baltsun.com

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