The election is only eight days away — and voters don’t seem to care.
Turnout for the June 24 gubernatorial primary contest in Maryland is expected to be low, perhaps historically low, an echo of what happened in California, Texas and elsewhere this spring. More than half of registered voters admit they aren’t paying attention to the race, according to a recent Washington Post poll.
“It’s not even on the back burner for me right now,” said Don Frisby, 61, who lives in Frederick County and had difficulty naming the candidates, let alone knowing which one he likes best. (For the record, the hopefuls are Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler and Del. Heather R. Mizeur [Montgomery], all Democrats. The Republicans are Harford County Executive David R. Craig, Del. Ronald A. George (Anne Arundel), Larry Hogan and Charles Lollar.)
The situation leaves many of the state’s political junkies aghast.
Unlike the last few Democratic primaries, this one is competitive. Local newspapers, Twitter feeds and evening news broadcasts are filled with tales of scandal, gaffes and even an empty lectern at a televised debate. The candidates have spent millions on television ads that have become increasingly negative. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans more than 2 to 1, so the Democratic primary winner typically becomes the state’s next governor.
Yet interest is much lower than it was during the 2010 gubernatorial race, when Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) easily won the primary and defeated former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) in the general election.
Months before that primary, 61 percent of registered voters were paying attention. Two weeks ahead of this primary, the number is 47 percent.
Political science professors have difficulty pinpointing exactly why interest is low, but they have some ideas: Maybe it’s because the primary was bumped up to June this year from the usual month of September, and some people care more about graduations, vacations and summer camp than democracy. Maybe it’s because Marylanders generally are satisfied with their government, or burned out on partisan politics and nasty elections. Maybe they feel like it’s a done deal, since Brown has been leading in the polls for months.
“Typically for primaries, I just don’t vote,” said Mike Washkevich, 58, a Democrat from Bethesda who works in sales and marketing. “It’s too long of a political season for me. It’s too much. So I let the rest of the party decide which candidate they like, then I jump in during the general election.”
Primaries require voters to do more work, as the differences between politicians from the same party often are more nuanced than the differences between Democrats and Republicans, said Michael J. Hanmer, the research director at the University of Maryland’s Center for American Politics and Citizenship.
“I think it’s detrimental to democracy to have low levels of voter participation,” Hanmer said. “Whoever wins the Democratic primary should coast through the general election. So this is important.”
Sonia Daniel, 25, registered to vote two days after her 18th birthday and has cast a ballot in every election since. But she’s working more than 70 hours a week at two jobs and going to school part-time. She doesn’t even know who is running.
“I don’t have the time,” said Daniel, who lives in Montgomery Village.
It’s not just a Maryland thing. Fewer than 24 percent of registered voters in California voted in the low-drama June 3 primary, a new low for a state where at least a third of voters usually show up. In Texas in March, fewer than 10 percent of registered Republicans and about 4 percent of Democrats voted in the primary. Fewer than 1 in 6 registered voters cast a ballot in primaries in Indiana, North Carolina and South Carolina.
But there is a glimmer of hope for decent turnout in Maryland: On Thursday, the first day of early voting, 20,382 Marylanders cast ballots, the highest one-day total that the state has seen for a primary since 2010, when residents were first allowed to vote early. All of the Democratic candidates and other elected officials have been trying to get voters to the polls early.
Voter turnout is nearly always lower in non-presidential elections. Participation in primaries has been spiraling downward, said Michael P. McDonald, an associate professor at George Mason University who studies voting trends. In many state primaries, including Maryland, only those registered with a party are allowed to vote. That can alienate the growing number of independents, McDonald said. In low-turnout elections, those who do vote often are passionately partisan.
McDonald said one of the more successful recent primaries was May 20 in Oregon, with 35.5 percent turnout. Perhaps that was because every registered voter receives a ballot in the mail, he said.
And there was a burst of interest in the Republican primary in Mississippi between long-serving Sen. Thad Cochran and tea party-backed challenger Chris McDaniel. Ads were nasty, stakes were high and national groups pumped money into the contest. The June 3 vote was so close that a runoff election has been scheduled — for the same day as Maryland’s primary.
“It just comes back to this: Is there an interesting election?” McDonald said. “Is it a competitive election? Do people think their vote will actually matter?” Perhaps, he suggested, even a competitive primary may be less interesting than a general-election battle.
Compared with Maryland’s primary race four years ago, The Post’s poll shows, interest has declined across a broad swath of voters. Conservative voters, once more passionate, now have about the same enthusiasm as liberal and moderate voters.
“I’m just not excited about any of the candidates,” said Joseph Todt, 54, a truck driver and registered Republican from Greenbelt who says he is more conservative than anyone in the field. He says he will probably vote, even if he does so grudgingly.
There is no major issue or divide defining either the Democratic or Republican race. The four Republican gubernatorial hopefuls largely have focused on cutting taxes. The Democratic candidates all have presented plans for expanding pre-kindergarten classes, holding taxes steady or reducing them, and increasing the number of jobs.
“There is nothing big out there that they have presented to anyone,” said Deangelo Stokes, 46, a mobile engineer from Harford County who is leaning toward voting for Brown. “No one is making any noise.”
Lawmakers passed legislation in 2011 to move gubernatorial primaries to the last Tuesday in June rather than the middle of September to give election officials more time to get general election ballots to troops serving overseas.
Most candidates have launched extensive get-out-the-vote efforts and are touting early voting centers that opened Thursday. Several television ads have prominently featured the primary date. But still, candidates say, they frequently encounter voters who don’t know that Election Day is coming right up.
The Post poll found that voter interest has sharply declined since 2010 in the Baltimore area, O’Malley’s home turf, while it notched up slightly in Prince George’s County, home to Brown. The running mates of Gansler and Mizeur also live in the county.
The largest drop-off in interest was among low-income voters. Four years ago, 62 percent were following the race. Now, it’s 40 percent.
Carol Cogar, 59, is one of those voters. She raised three children on her own in Southern Maryland, working low-paying jobs. At one point, she tried to get subsidized housing but was told the wait was five to 10 years. Since 2006, Cogar has been on disability for congestive heart failure and diabetes. Each month she receives $861 from the government, which covers her mortgage and utilities, and $116 to pay for food. Each year her expenses creep up.
Cogar, a registered Democrat, has stopped voting. An exception: President Obama, who she thinks has not been allowed to do everything that he promised voters like her. She has yet to be inspired by a Maryland politician.
“They promise me the moon and the stars and everything in between — then they get elected and they don’t do anything,” she said. “I know I sound bitter. I probably shouldn’t be that way. But it’s because of my life experiences.”
Scott Clement, Peyton Craighill and Ovetta Wiggins contributed to this report.