Across Southern Maryland, election officials and political observers have noted a remarkable surge of voter registration and interest in the outcome of the presidential race.
The increase comes from several factors, they said, including rapidly growing populations across the region, a tight and contentious presidential contest and aggressive registration drives by local political parties.
"We are so inundated. The turnout has just been monumental; it's fantastic," said Dorothy Duffield, Charles County's elections director. "I've been here 34 years, and it's the biggest thing I've ever seen in voter registration.
"And, I think the 2000 election showed people that their votes did count," said Duffield. "People said, 'Hey, I better start participating in this process.' "
About three weeks ago, 400 to 500 voter registration forms began pouring in each day at the Charles County Board of Elections. On Tuesday, the deadline to register for the Nov. 2 election, the La Plata office was so overrun with people that it ran out of chairs and had applicants filling out forms on every available surface.
As of Friday, with hundreds of forms still to be entered into the database and counted, 72,912 people are registered to vote in Charles, the highest number in the county's history and an increase of about 8,000 voters since the primary election in March.
Democrats maintain a sizable lead in Charles; 35,736 are registered to vote compared with 25,683 Republicans. There are also 82 Green Party members, 33 Libertarians, 10 Constitutional Party members, 857 "Others" and 10,511 unaffiliated voters as of Friday afternoon. Within the past year, the Democrats have formed two political clubs, including one for northern Charles that is reaching out to the growing population in Waldorf, said Edith J. Patterson, chairwoman of the Charles County Democratic Central Committee. She said attention to the war in Iraq as well as domestic concerns about the economy and health care have mobilized residents to register.
Democrats and Republicans in Southern Maryland have been canvassing grocery stores, hardware stores, gun shows, racetracks, county fairs and other spots to sign up voters. The parties have been working phone banks trying to sway undecided voters and are arranging to help people get to the polls on Election Day.
"One thing is the registration, though, and it's another to get out and vote," Patterson said. "That's our next challenge."
In Calvert, 48,783 people were registered as of Friday, including 20,505 Republicans and 20,264 Democrats, election officials said. There were also 87 Green Party members, 2 Constitutional Party members, 37 Libertarians, 486 voters characterized as "Others" and 7,402 unaffiliated voters, officials said. The total registration figure is up nearly 6,000 since November 2002.
In Calvert as well as St. Mary's, voters will also choose school board members in November, and observers say the congressional race between Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) and Republican challenger Brad Jewitt also will bring out more voters.
"I have never seen this kind of a registration flurry," said Tom Kelley, the chairman of the Republican Party in Calvert. "Nobody was interested in the primary; there was a lower voter turnout than during the bubonic plague."
Last year, Calvert Republicans surpassed Democrats for the first time in recent history, and they have continued to slowly build on their lead in registrations. Republicans captured a majority on the county Board of Commissioners in 1998, winning three of five seats, and added a fourth Republican in 2002. Some said the big influx of new residents, making Calvert the fastest-growing county in the state, has been a major factor in the Republican rise.
St. Mary's County added about 3,000 Democrats and Republicans since November of 2002, according to board of elections figures from Thursday. Of the county's 48,620 registered voters, there were 21,406 Democrats and 19,424 Republicans. In addition, there were 96 Green Party members, 12 Constitutional Party members, 42 Libertarians, 1 Populist Party member, 556 "Others" and 7,083 unaffiliated voters, officials said.