About 22 percent of eligible Marylander voters appear to have cast ballots in the contentious gubernatorial primary Tuesday, which is higher than some had predicted but still a new low for a state that has seen participation in primaries gradually dwindle.
Unlike past years when gubernatorial primaries lacked competition, the Democratic and Republican contests this year both featured slates of viable candidates. The Democrats, in particular, spent millions of dollars on television advertising in an attempt to set themselves apart from their competition.
There were tense debates, controversial scandals and rounds of attacks lobbed between Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, who won the Democratic nomination with about half of the votes, and Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler. In the final weeks, supporters of Del. Heather R. Mizeur (Montgomery) flooded Twitter and Facebook with talk of her candidacy.
But it just wasn’t enough to get most voters to show up.
Of the more than 3 million Democrats and Republicans who were eligible to vote in the primary, about 667,500 did so, according to results from nearly all precincts on Wednesday morning. Participation was about the same in both parties.
During the last gubernatorial primary in 2010 — when Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) and former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) easily won their primary battles — more than 25 percent of eligible voters participated.
Back in 1994, nearly 40 percent of voters cast ballots in the gubernatorial primary, but participation has been steadily falling since then. In 1998, it was 28.6 percent. In 2002, 30.8 percent. In 2006, 29.6 percent. Then 25 percent in 2010 and 22 percent this year.
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.
Non-presidential elections often have lower turnout, but political science professors say these low numbers clearly show that many voters are disengaged, although it’s unclear exactly why. Perhaps they are content with the way things are. Or maybe they are fed up with the partisanship of national politics.
Plus, Maryland’s contest this year was months earlier than usual, as the state has moved its gubernatorial primary from September to June so that election officials will have more time to prepare general election ballots and get them to troops serving overseas. That change likely caught many voters off guard — and it forced the primary to compete with Marylanders’ summer plans.
Maryland officials tried to increase participation by further expanding early voting to more days in more locations. Over eight days of early voting, about 5 percent of registered Democrats and 3.6 percent of registered Republicans participated.
The State Board of Elections posted unofficial voter turnout results for each county early Wednesday morning. Participation appeared highest in Kent and Talbot counties on the Eastern Shore, with more than 30 percent of voters casting ballots during early voting or on Election Day. In Montgomery County, which had several high-profile local races, turnout appeared to be only 16 percent.
In the hours before the polls closed on Tuesday at 8 p.m., several candidates bemoaned the low turnout and encouraged more voters to get to the polls. When Gansler addressed his supporters after losing the race Tuesday night, he said that the low turnout is a sign that Maryland is in trouble.
“If today’s voting and turnout shows anything, it’s that people are very frustrated in our state,” he said. “The middle class is being squeezed by taxes going up and getting less from a government that’s supposed to work for them.”