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Voter Turnout Either Sizzled Or Fizzled

'Record' Claims Depend on Comparison

By Cameron W. Barr and Eric Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, November 4, 2004; Page B01

Voters in the District, Maryland and Virginia went to the polls at record rates yesterday -- or not. It depends on how you compare them with those who did not vote.

"I really, truly expected more people to show up at the polls," said Howard County elections director Betty Nordaas. The intensity and long lines of early morning turnout had "kind of fizzled" by late afternoon, she said.

Triplets Quinn, left, Clark and Marie Baranoski, 7, wait in the voting line at Colvin Run Elementary in Fairfax with their mother, Jill Crisman. (Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)

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Nordaas and other election officials calculate turnout by comparing the number of voters with those registered, and by that measure, Tuesday lacked sizzle. The District's turnout was 54 percent, way off the 1984 peak of 77.7 percent. Maryland estimated yesterday that Tuesday's turnout would be at least 71.5 percent, down from the 1992 high of 81 percent. And in Virginia, Tuesday's 68.5 percent turnout compares unfavorably with the 84.5 percent of 1992.

Herb Smith, a political scientist at Maryland's McDaniel College, accounted for this malaise with four words: "Absence of competitive races."

"The presidential race has become so compartmentalized and focused on swing states," he added, "that there's not that much presidential activity in the whole of Maryland." Voters returned all of the state's congressional incumbents to office Tuesday without a real fight.

But Tuesday's turnout shines when you compare the number of voters with the total of those eligible to vote. By that measure, Virginia and the District had record turnouts, 58.4 percent and 52.5 percent respectively, according to Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate. Turnout in Maryland was up 2 ½ percentage points from 2000.

Gans said each side was motivated by strong feelings about the Bush presidency. "The Bush team did a better job of accurately turning out their voters. Democrats did a less good job by farming out their turnout efforts to private groups," he said, referring to organizations formed to help get out the vote for Sen. John F. Kerry.

Even in Maryland, a state Kerry won, Republicans said they were delighted. State Republican Party spokeswoman Deborah Martinez said that Bush's showing -- 937,251 votes -- exceeded the number of registered Republicans in the state, which is about 850,000. To her, that indicated a robust turnout, but Johns Hopkins University political scientist Matthew Crenson observed that "there are lots of conservative Democrats in Maryland."

"We knew from traveling around Virginia that there was a groundswell of support, an intensity, among the president's supporters," said Kate Obenshain Griffin, chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia. "We put a lot of energy in registering new voters and identifying our voters."

In Virginia, presidential elections serve as a prologue to the race for governor. Both sides are planning to study the vote and turnout to divine any significance for next year's campaign.

"This generated momentum and enthusiasm, and it's our job to keep it going," Griffin said. She said the party would immediately kick up efforts on behalf of Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore (R), who is expected to run for governor next year.

Griffin's Democratic counterpart said he did not necessarily see a connection between Tuesday's vote and next year's gubernatorial campaign, when Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) is expected to run.

"One of the things we saw is [the] conventional wisdom about increased turnout benefiting Democrats getting tossed out the window," said Kerry Donley, chairman of the Virginia Democratic Party. "We didn't see it in Virginia and didn't see it nationally," Donley said. "The party needs to do more, especially in the rural areas. That's where we will continue building on the enthusiasm we saw during this campaign."

Experts cautioned that 1992's turnout numbers seem high in retrospect in part because of the advent of the motor-voter law, which has made registration easier and swelled the number of registered voters. Scoring a high turnout is harder than it used to be.

Energetic campaigns to register voters, said Crenson of Johns Hopkins, yield "passive registrants" -- people who fill out the forms but then fail to take an interest in politics.

For example, in 1992, Virginia's turnout was 2,582,966, or 84.5 percent of registered voters. More than 3 million Virginians cast ballots Tuesday -- a record -- but at a rate of 68.5 percent of registered voters.

Staff writer Paul Schwartzman contributed to this report.

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