Tight Race and Deep Interest Augur Big Turnout Today

The Republican and Democratic presidential candidates make a final appeal to voters before the "Potomac Primaries" of Maryland, Virginia and D.C. on Feb. 12, 2008.
By Michael Laris and Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Election officials in Virginia, Maryland and the District expect a large, perhaps record-breaking, turnout in today's primaries as voters think they can influence one of the closest presidential nominating fights in memory.

Using absentee balloting and voter inquiries as their guide, officials said interest in the primary is unprecedented. The Democratic race is tight and historic, and many Republican voters say the direction of their party is at stake.

Officials in parts of Virginia have received a record number of absentee ballots, a key barometer of turnout. In Fairfax County, the state's largest jurisdiction, requests for Democratic absentee ballots have more than tripled over 2004. "Saturday was one of our busiest absentee voting days for any election, not just for any primary," said Jackie Harris, the Fairfax general registrar.

In Maryland, Democratic leaders predicted that turnout in the party could reach 1 million voters, shattering the record. Four years ago, about 470,000 Democrats voted in the primary. The record is about 596,000 in 1976, when Jerry Brown defeated Jimmy Carter in the state.

"Voter turnout among all voters is going to skyrocket," said David Paulson, spokesman for the Maryland Democratic Party.

"It's extremely busy," said Rudolph McGann, a staff attorney with the District's Board of Elections and Ethics, who was helping out with yesterday's crush of phone calls from voters seeking last-minute information about polling places and other details. "There will be a big turnout."

All that might mean long waits, because in primaries space for voting booths and staffing at the polls are far less than during general elections.

Voters talked about what is at stake. "Four years ago, the primary was pretty much sewn up by the time it got to Virginia. I didn't really feel the significance or the importance of it that I do now," said Marlene Barney, a Sterling Democrat.

It's "like the World Series," she said. "There's excitement about the fact that it's so close, and both candidates are different from anything we've seen in the past. It's just not the same old, same old."

But there also was some concern that the weather would tamp down turnout. Forecasters said there was a chance of rain and possibly snow in northern and western parts of Maryland and Virginia.

"If we actually have freezing weather, ice and stuff, that will hinder some of the people from coming," said Judy Brown, the Loudoun County registrar.

In the Washington region, interest in absentee voting has been especially high among Democrats, as Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Barack Obama (Ill.) are running neck and neck nationally.

"There is a lot of energy; there's a lot of interest in this race. A lot of Democrats, in particular, feel there's a lot at stake," said Linda Lindberg, Arlington County's general registrar.

Interest has surged among Democratic voters even in traditionally more Republican areas, such as Loudoun. Democratic absentee ballots were distributed at a rate of nearly 2 to 1 over Republican ballots in Loudoun, officials said.

Spirited congressional primaries could boost turnout in two Maryland districts.

In the 4th District, Rep. Albert R. Wynn is facing a Democratic primary challenge from Donna F. Edwards in Prince George's County and part of Montgomery County. In the 1st District, Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest is battling two Republican challengers, state Sens. Andrew P. Harris (Baltimore County) and E.J. Pipkin (Queen Anne's).

The intense interest could result in long lines at some precincts, and election officials urged voters to avoid peak periods and times when parents and buses drop students off at schools. In many schools in Virginia, for example, voting will take place in tighter quarters than during a typical November general election, when classes are canceled at many schools.

"For this one, schools are in a bind, and we're in a bind," said Judy Flaig, the Fairfax election manager. "We're trying peaceful coexistence for Election Day."

Smaller spaces and fewer poll workers will mean longer waits, Brown, the Loudoun official, said. "They just need to be patient," she said.

State officials in Virginia and Maryland are projecting that as many as four in 10 registered voters will show up at the polls.

"We are seeing unprecedented interest for a presidential primary," said Susan S. Pollard, a spokeswoman for the Virginia State Board of Elections. Last week, the board fielded more than 8,000 phone calls, eight times as many as it usually does in the week before an election.

Staff writers John Wagner and Tim Craig contributed to this report.

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