Voter turnout misses forecast

Despite a surge in registrations, 76% falls short of record

November 09, 2008|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

An unprecedented surge in registrations, heightened interest in the presidential and congressional races and organized efforts to get voters to the polls did not give Harford County the record turnout many officials expected.

"Given the interest and the high numbers in the morning, I thought we were headed toward 90 percent," said James E. Massey, director of the county Board of Elections. "Toward evening, things got quiet, and we ended the day with a 76 percent turnout."

Presidential elections typically draw large numbers, with this year's tally at 114,000 voters, he said. The highest turnout occurred in November 2004, when nearly 82 percent of Harford's voters went to the polls. In November 2000, nearly 78 percent voted.

Massey based his 2008 prediction on the ever-increasing number of registrations. By the end of August, registration was at 142,884. The number grew by more than 1,600 to 144,500 through Sept. 26. By the Oct. 14 deadline, 149,942 residents had registered to vote.

The long lines voters experienced at polls in other jurisdictions did not occur in Harford. Massey arranged for 789 voting machines, 139 more than in the 2006 election, and hired 1,037 judges, nearly twice the number employed during the February statewide primary. Judges reported to their assigned polls at 6 a.m., an hour ahead of opening.

"We were ready, and we were able to keep lines short," Massey said.

The elections board has about 8,500 absentee ballots to count, and results of the 1st Congressional District race hinge on those and other absentee votes in the district, which includes the Eastern Shore and portions of Harford, Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties. In Harford, 5,133 absentee ballots were in the 1st District.

After Tuesday's tally, Andy Harris, a Republican state senator, led by nearly 10,000 votes in Harford, but his Democratic opponent, Frank Kratovil, held an overall lead of about 900. The elections board started counting the absentee ballots Thursday but spent much of the day responding to challenges from area Democrats. A second and final count is set for this Thursday.

"Absentee ballots generally break the same way as the general election," Massey said.

Absentee ballots can be accepted as late as Nov. 14 so long as they are postmarked Nov. 4, Election Day, Massey said.

Harford's 64,883 registered Democrats still hold a slight edge over Republicans, who number 62,411. More than 20,000 voters are not affiliated with any party, and nearly 500 are members of other political parties.

County residents voted for both statewide ballot questions, favoring slots by 68,639 to 43,574 and early voting by 61,663 to 48,238.

Judge Angela M. Eaves, the first woman and first African-American to serve on the Harford County Circuit Court, ran unopposed after winning both the Democratic and Republican primaries in February.

The Harford County Democratic Club launched a strong registration effort at the end of the summer with an emphasis on the southern part of the county. Its efforts added another 2,000 voters to the rolls, said Art Helton, club chairman. Republicans also encouraged voters to register and provided forms and assistance at community events.

Nearly 300 voters took advantage of the Democratic Club's offer of free transportation to the polls anywhere in the county Tuesday, Helton said. With six vans, one handicaped-accessible vehicle and another 15 drivers with their own vehicles, anyone who needed a ride found one, Helton said.

"We went all over the county," he said. "But our heaviest concentration was along the I-95 and Route 40 corridors."

Second-grade students at St. Margaret's parochial school in Bel Air also helped get out the vote. Decked out in red, white and blue, they waved signs, cheered and tipped top hats fashioned from newsprint to drivers along Hickory Avenue.

"The vote is important so we can have a president," said Brianna Schap of Perryville.

St. Margaret's was in session Tuesday, unlike its public school counterparts, whose buildings served as polling places.

"If they have forgotten to vote, they might remember when they pass by us," said Drew Haiber of Churchville.

The children's social studies teacher, Kathy Petrone, dressed as Uncle Sam, organized the rally to extend lessons in citizenship.

"We have learned that every vote counts," Petrone said. "So even if we only got one person to vote, our effort was all worth it."

The demonstration, complete with a boombox blaring patriotic songs, involved about 90 second-graders. Mallory Lynn of Bel Air printed "Vote now. I love the USA" on her sign and waved it vigorously. She and several classmates jumped and chanted, "Two, four, six, eight. Who do we appreciate? Voters!"

The children took to the sidewalk outside their classrooms and across the street from a polling place - at arrival, lunch and dismissal.

"In the morning, the rally lasted 20 minutes, and no one lost enthusiasm," said Principal Jane Dean.

The frequent honking from passing traffic encouraged the 7-year-olds, who became louder and more enthusiastic with each blaring horn.

Katie Smith of Bel Air knew the importance of her task.

"Vote, please!" she shouted. "We need a new president and new laws."

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