Busy Day At Polls Likely in Md., D.C.

By John Wagner and Elissa Silverman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 12, 2006

A bumper crop of candidates -- and the deluge of TV and radio ads, mail and phone calls promoting them -- is expected to yield healthy primary election turnouts today in Maryland and the District, according to election officials and political analysts.

Polls will open in both jurisdictions at 7 a.m. to what forecasters say will be mild, dry weather. By the time the precincts close at 8 p.m., Democratic voters in the District will have picked their choices for a new mayor, a new D.C. Council chairman and for three open council seats. That, combined with a highly contested race for an at-large spot, could radically change the composition of the city's leadership. "This is a watershed election for D.C.," Democratic pollster Ron Lester said.

Ronald Walters, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, said turnout could exceed 45 percent in the heavily Democratic city, where primaries are often the equivalent of a general election.

In Maryland, state election officials expect about 33 percent of the roughly 3 million registered voters to trek to the polls, a greater percentage than in 2002 and 1998 but still shy of 1994, when 40 percent voted in the primaries.

"There is a higher degree of political saturation than we've seen in a long time," said Matthew A. Crenson, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins University. "A tremendous amount of money has been invested in these campaigns. There's been lots of mail, lots of candidates up on television."

The eight suburban Maryland counties surrounding Washington have produced about 770 candidates for the primary, including those running for the U.S. Senate and other offices. The District has more than 50.

In Maryland, turnout could vary considerably by party and somewhat by region. Derek Walker, executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party, said he expects turnout for his party's primaries to be "quite robust," perhaps as high as half of the 1.7 million registered Democrats statewide.

Audra Miller, a Maryland GOP spokeswoman said turnout among the 900,000 or so GOP voters would probably be modest by comparison, given what she described as "unity" behind the party's leading statewide candidates.

In the District, Lester said, the spirited nature of the mayoral race has energized voters, particularly in areas such as Ward 4, home to council member Adrian M. Fenty and council Chairman Linda W. Cropp, the leading candidates.

The negative tone of the mayor's race also has had an impact. "People get fired up when you attack their candidate in D.C.," Lester said.

In 1998, when Anthony A. Williams was first elected mayor, 34 percent of Democratic voters went to the polls. But turnout was far higher in 1994 -- 52 percent of Democratic voters -- when Marion Barry signed up thousands of new voters to stage his comeback to the mayor's office.

In Maryland, interest on the Democratic side is being driven by several hotly contested statewide primaries, including a U.S. Senate race that includes Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin and former congressman and NAACP leader Kweisi Mfume; a race for comptroller that could end the 50-year career of political legend William Donald Schaefer; and a competitive attorney general's contest.

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