After just 15 percent of Calvert County's registered voters cast ballots in the primary election in March, Board of Elections employee Mary DePelteau heard a common refrain from those who stayed home.
"They said there was nothing to vote for," she said. "It was awful."
But this time around -- with a heated presidential contest, two congressional races and a few local elections generating interest -- Southern Maryland election officials and political observers are predicting a busy time at the voting booths Tuesday.
DePelteau predicted that at least 70 percent of Calvert's 49,393 registered voters would go to the polls. Other Southern Maryland jurisdictions predicted an equally high turnout.
"We've been extremely busy. Phones have been ringing constantly, and people are very interested," she said. "I think people realized that every vote does count after the last general election."
Across Southern Maryland this week, candidates have gone door to door and voiced their positions at forums, while political parties planned a final mobilization to get voters to the polls. Electronic voting machines have been tested, sealed and securely stored before distribution to polling sites, officials said.
In addition to the race for the White House between President Bush (R) and Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), Southern Maryland residents will decide between Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D), the House minority whip and 12-term incumbent, and challenger Brad Jewitt (R), the former mayor of Berwyn Heights. Also, Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski is facing Republican challenger E.J. Pipkin, a state senator representing Queen Anne's County.
Calvert and St. Mary's will select board of education members. Calvert residents also will decide whether to expand the county commissioners' local powers by adopting the code home rule form of government. In Calvert, residents of Chesapeake Beach will pick a mayor and members of the Town Council.
Southern Maryland voter registration totals have grown significantly for this election. In Charles County, 73,896 voters are registered, an increase of more than 12,000 in the past two years. In the county, Democrats maintain a 10,335-voter lead over Republicans.
"We're dealing with a lot more voters," said county Election Administrator Dorothy C. Duffield. "It's going to be terribly crowded at the polls all day long."
In St. Mary's County, there are 21,643 Democrats and 19,727 Republicans and a total of 49,351 registered voters -- up by nearly 8,000 since November 2002. Calvert County Republicans continue to narrowly edge Democrats, 20,730 to 20,477.
Representatives of the major political parties said their volunteers will be out in droves across Southern Maryland right up to the election trying to persuade people to vote. Charles County Republicans are planning a final 72-hour get-out-the-vote drive, said John Rutherford, chairman of the county's Republican Central Committee. Local businesses are offering their offices for last-minute phone banks to place calls to the party faithful to urge them to vote. Volunteers are on standby to provide rides to the polls and distribute fliers and pamphlets outside voting sites, he said.
"At this point, we're not trying to change anybody's mind. We're just trying to get people to the polls," Rutherford said.
While authorities cited no specific safety threats for voters, they said security would be tighter this year than during previous elections. Calvert County officials said there have been weekly conference calls with local, state and federal homeland security officials in preparation for Election Day. St. Mary's County election officials are asking residents not to bring backpacks or briefcases to voting sites and to leave devices such as cell phones, pagers and laptop computers in their cars.
"We've had no specific threats," said Catherine Countiss, election chief in St. Mary's County. "But since 9/11, you have to critique things and try to make our voters feel safer."
Charles County Sheriff's Office officials said more than 20 officers would patrol voting sites. "[Police] are going to be inside, outside, all over the place," said Kristen Adkins, sheriff's office spokesman. "It's a precautionary measure. We need to be visible so people can feel safe and approach us with any questions."