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.

Democratic ballots in Maryland will also include closely watched county executive races in Montgomery, Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties; some intense state Senate primaries; a fierce fight in congressional races, such as in the 4th District, which spans Montgomery and Prince George's counties; and an unpredictable scramble in the 3rd, which includes parts of Baltimore City and Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Howard counties.

Until this summer, it appeared Democrats would also have a choice of gubernatorial candidates, an additional incentive to vote. But Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley is the only Democrat on the ballot since Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan dropped out in June.

Meanwhile, statewide primaries among Maryland Republicans have generated only limited attention.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is running unopposed for his party's nomination. In the U.S. Senate race, Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele faces nine Republican opponents -- but none with much potential to derail his march to the nomination. And there is only one GOP candidate for attorney general.

Four candidates are seeking the GOP nomination for comptroller, but that race has lacked the drama of the Democrats' three-way contest.

"The driving force will be local races," Miller said of GOP turnout.

Democrats had hoped that an early voting plan that was to open the polls a week early would boost turnout. But the plan approved by the legislature -- and vigorously opposed by Ehrlich -- was scotched by the state Court of Appeals, which ruled that it violated the state constitution.

"Governor Ehrlich has created a bad climate for people coming out to vote," said the Maryland Democrats' Walker. "But Mother Nature seems to be negating that a little bit."

The forecast for the Washington area calls for partly cloudy skies with a high in the low 70s today -- perfect weather for voting.

Staff writers Matthew Mosk and Lori Montgomery contributed to this report.

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