Celebrating a fresh activist spirit


November 16, 2008|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,larry.carson@baltsun.com

When Columbia residents Jonathan and Delma Branch volunteered to help other Howard residents campaign for Barack Obama, they had no idea what to expect.

"This was our first time ever doing anything like this," Jonathan Branch, 53, told about 40 people gathered at a Columbia Democratic Club meeting Wednesday night in Jeffers Hill.

The Branches went to Pennsylvania to knock on doors and worked the phones in the Columbia office.

As did other first-timers and even experienced volunteers, the Branches said they believed that the campaign was not just about whether Republicans or Democrats took power, but that it was part of America's long road toward racial and social justice despite some voters' angry rejection of their entreaties.

Now that the election is over, several said, they came to the meeting to talk about their experiences.

"It just feels like New Year's Day. It feels so good," Jonathan Branch said. "I would like to start the re-elect Obama campaign."

For Rhonda-Cheree Johnson, 47, another first-time volunteer, taking part in the campaign work recalled her youth in the 1970s.

"All of a sudden, there was that buzz like it was in Columbia when I was growing up," she said. "That sense of community."

Though she is a more experienced activist, Shari Zaret, 57, said she, too, was taken aback by the mood she encountered while volunteering.

"I've never seen anything like this campaign - the quality of the conversation," she said. "Barriers broke down. Language became so honest, true. It was truly a new beginning."

Kelli Shimabukuro, 47, said her family noticed the extent of her investment.

"My kids called me a maniac," she said.

Shimabukuro said she found it valuable "learning to go beyond my comfort zone and be with other people."

Michael Phillips, 69, said he was "very skeptical" at first that a black man could ever win election.

"I think I owe America an apology," he said.

Turnout at 82.42%

Counting more than 12,400 absentee ballots returned by voters, the county's turnout reached 82.42 percent, election officials said, the highest rate in Maryland.

Betty Nordaas, the county elections administrator, said preliminary figures showed Howard's turnout eclipsed runner-up Frederick County's 82.40 percent.

This year's turnout in Howard was 2 percent higher than the last presidential election, but less than some predictions issued before Election Day. All but 1,000 of the absentee ballots that were issued were returned, Nordaas said.

In both presidential elections, about 75 percent of voters visited polling places on election day, but this year there were about 11,000 more registered voters than four years ago, and about 8,000 more of them showed up to cast ballots.

Ann Balcerzak, president of the Elections Board, said about twice as many registered Democrats voted as registered Republicans, while about 25,000 were unaffiliated voters.

Barack Obama improved on John Kerry's winning Democratic margin, finishing with 59.5 percent of the Election Day total, compared with Kerry's 54 percent in 2004. A more detailed look at precinct-level returns shows Obama improved Democratic results in many areas, but particularly in Ellicott City, often considered a swing district in Howard County.

It can be hard to compare results at the same precinct from different elections because Howard is growing, and because the 98 precincts that existed in 2004 have been divided into 110 precincts now, some with different boundaries.

But those precincts are divided into six election districts, which can provide some clues.

In District 1, mainly in Elkridge, Obama won nine of 15 precincts, compared with Kerry's five of 12.

In Ellicott City, District 2, Obama took 18 of 25 precincts - often in close contests - and tied John McCain for another, compared with Kerry's victory in nine of 23 polling places.

At the Ellicott Mills Middle School gym, for example, Bush won with 981 votes to Kerry's 806. This year, Obama won that precinct with 957 votes to McCain's 891. At the Centennial Lane Elementary cafeteria, Bush won the precinct in 2004 with 591 votes to Kerry's 556. This year, Obama took it with 595 to McCain's 504.

Districts 3 and 4 cover the western county, where Republicans often prevail, and that pattern continued with McCain taking all 12 precincts in the two areas.

Districts 5 and 6 cover heavily Democratic areas in the eastern county, including most of Columbia, Fulton, North Laurel and Jessup, and Obama improved on Kerry's performance there, too.

In District 5, Obama won 19 of 23 precincts, compared with Kerry's 17 of 22. In District 6, Obama took all but one of the 35 precincts, while Kerry had won in 29 of 32.

And in precincts in which the Democrats won in both elections, Obama's victory margins were larger than Kerry's.

At the Long Reach High gymnasium, for example, a precinct that did not change boundaries, Obama rolled up 1,668 votes, compared with Kerry's 1,239.

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