Tuesday was a good day to be an incumbent in Montgomery County. Everyone who ran in the Democratic primary won, including County Executive Isiah Leggett, seven County Council members and all state legislators who sought to return.
But the afterglow was dimmed by a sobering data point. Just 16.2 percent of the county’s 630,000 eligible voters cast ballots on primary day or during the eight-day early voting window. That placed Montgomery dead last among Maryland counties, trailing Baltimore County (24.6) Anne Arundel (24.2 percent), Frederick (23.2 percent) Howard (19.7) and Prince George’s (17.6). Statewide, about 22 percent of those eligible voted.
Nor was this year an outlier. In 2010, turnout in Montgomery was 18 percent — also last among counties.
Candidates and political professionals offered a litany of reasons for the anemic response. Voters were unfamiliar with the new June primary date, or preoccupied with the end of the school year or vacation plans. The old September date gave challengers more time to gain traction. Disillusion and disdain over the national political scene has spilled into local politics. Others pointed to the top of the ballot, where the governor’s race failed to spark real interest, even though two of the three major Democratic candidates — Doug Gansler and Heather Mizeur — live in the county.
Some say that despite Montgomery’s congested roads and overcrowded schools, no single issue was urgent or compelling enough to move large numbers of voters to the polls.
Whether it’s one or all of the above, it had some winners sounding less than triumphant on Wednesday. They recounted visits Tuesday to virtually empty polling places.
“Terrible. There’s no other word for it,” said Council member Phil Andrews (D-Rockville-Gaithersburg), who came in third behind Leggett and Doug Duncan in the county executive’s race but exceeded expectations with 22 percent of the vote.
“There are a lot of reasons,” he said. “People feel very, very disconnected from government. They don’t feel it makes a difference if they come out and vote.”
“It’s depressing,” said Council member Marc Elrich (D-At-Large), Tuesday’s top vote-getter among the four at-large incumbents. “People just don’t engage. It comes out of a feeling that we don’t listen, so what difference does it make anyway?”
“People on both sides need to do some soul searching,” said Council member George Leventhal (D-At-Large). “The public ought to think about its interest in governance, and those governing have to think about how they are communicating with the public.”
Leggett, all but assured of a third term after his primary win, said turnout was low partly because the recession and its aftermath effectively muted the traditional election season tensions in the county over growth and its consequences.
“You’re coming after a major recession so the attitude about growth has been altered to some degree,” Leggett said.
Other issues, such as the Silver Spring Transit Center, which Andrews and Duncan tried to use as a way of calling Leggett’s leadership into question, simply didn’t resonate across the county.
Leggett, who was held to under 50 percent of the vote in his three-way race with Andrews and Duncan, said the low turnout “significantly impacted” his total. He said the minimal voter interest gave the campaign the feel of a special off-cycle election to replace someone who had died or resigned.
He called for a reconsideration of the June date, established so that the state could comply with the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act. It requires states to send ballots to service personnel and other Americans overseas no later than 45 days before the November election.
“We’ve got to find a way to comply [with the law] and have a primary that is more conducive to running the races,” said Leggett.
Winning candidates said Tuesday that they would have to work harder to engage residents in the process, making them believe that their voice actually does matter.
Elrich suggested an ongoing series of public service announcements in an effort to raise basic awareness of what the council does and why it matters.
“A lot of people don’t have a clue about who we are,” he said.
Leventhal, a former county Democratic committee chairman, said he would like to see the Montgomery central committee grapple with the issue.
He also said candidates need to re-think the way in which they campaign.Voters feel battered and badgered, he said, by torrents of mail, robocalls and other relentless forms of outreach.
“There’s very little restraint,” he said. “Candidates have no sense of when enough is enough. “The result is not a happy one.”