At first glance, University of Maryland political scientist James G. Gimpel seems to be belaboring the obvious with his new study of voter turnout in Montgomery, Howard and Frederick counties during the 2000 general election.
Of the 264 precincts in the three-county area, the highest turnout occurred at a polling place in the party room of the Promenade, a luxury high-rise in Bethesda, where 88 percent of the 949 registered voters showed up. Gimpel confirms that turnout is heaviest in densely populated areas where voters live close to polling places. He also found big turnouts in rural areas, where lighter traffic and less development make mobility easier.
But Gimpel's focus is where turnout falls off: the middle range of suburbia, where residents cope with long commutes, little time to vote and polling places that often are inconveniently located.
"If there are two voters of similar background and motivation, and one lives in Silver Spring and the other in Damascus," he said, "the one in Damascus votes less."
In his study, released last week, Gimpel outlines a series of policy changes that he says could stimulate turnout by making voting more accessible. They include opening more polling places -- some along mass transit lines -- making Election Day a national holiday and loosening regulations that cover voting by mail.
He also says that localities need a more expansive definition of the polling place to include private homes, supermarkets, malls and convenience stores.
There is some support for his ideas among elections officials. Stuart M. Harvey, Frederick election administrator, has urged his board to find more polling places in the rapidly developing county, where the number of registered voters has doubled in 10 years to 120,000.
"We would be glad to have polling places all over the place if we could," said Evelyn Purcell, deputy director of the Howard County Board of Elections. But it's not so easy, she said.
"Polling places in Howard County are hard to come by."
In Montgomery, election administrator Margaret A. Jurgensen said she thinks more voters should be able to cast ballots by mail as absentees or in "early voting" before Election Day, as is allowed in several western states.
"We need to look beyond the one-day concept of voting," she said.
Gimpel's most controversial proposals deal with access to the polls for people with handicaps, mandated by the 1992 Americans with Disabilities Act. The law's requirements place many potential voting sites off-limits.
"In this sense," he said, " the cost of requiring that sites be accessible for the handicapped is that they have been less geographically accessible for hundreds of non-handicapped voters."
Officials agreed but said the law gives little leeway. Purcell said only 1 percent of Howard voters are deemed disabled, "but it's the federal guidelines we have to go by. Handicapped people don't want to be treated differently from everybody else and want to be able to go to the polls to vote."
Harvey, who worked 12 years for the Montgomery election board, said handicapped accessibility isn't a major issue in Frederick. Whenever such a polling place is unavailable, voters can be reassigned to another location or obtain an absentee ballot.
Gimpel said he undertook the study, with the help of former graduate student Jason E. Schuknecht, to make political science more relevant and to stimulate discussion leading to reforms.
"While polling-place location is not the whole world when it comes to pervasive low turnout," he said, "it is something we can do something about, relatively easily."
But some election officials said Gimpel's proposed solutions could be costly, impractical or even illegal.
"I can tell you, from an administrative point of view, increasing the polling places increases the cost of an election," said Linda H. Lamone, administrator of the Maryland Board of Elections.
"You need more poll workers. It would mean additional costs in voting equipment. An election isn't just something you put out there."
Aside from commuters, Gimpel said, single parents and voters without cars need better access to polling places, and improving their turnout also would require more convenient polling places.
"There are certain kinds of people the system excludes, and a lot are willing to live with that because it's always been done that way," Gimpel said. "That's pathetic and sad."