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Officials expect a good turnout for Md. primary

March 02, 2000|By BRENDAN KIRBY

More Washington County residents have asked for absentee ballots for next week's primary election than did so four years ago, an indication that turnout may exceed that of the last presidential primary.

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How many more voters will show up at the polls on Tuesday, however, is anybody's guess.

"I think it will be a little bit better this time," said Washington County Election Director Dorothy Kaetzel. "It will be interesting to see what happens on Super Tuesday."

Statewide, election officials project a 42 percent turnout, which would exceed the total turnouts of 1996 and 1992.

Four years ago, 26.9 percent of the voters in Washington County cast ballots in the primary. Republican turnout, 35.4 percent, was higher than Democratic participation, 23.8 percent.

The Washington County Board of Elections had received 548 absentee ballots by Tuesday's deadline, Kaetzel said. That exceeded the 475 received in 1996.

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Maryland Republican Party officials said they believe the competitive presidential race between Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Arizona Sen. John McCain will draw voters. Rule changes that allow independents to vote in the party's primary also may help.

"We have reason to expect a larger turnout than last time," said Paul Ellington, executive director of the Maryland GOP. "I think both Bush and McCain are working to get the vote out."

A large turnout among independents is probably crucial to McCain's hopes of winning Maryland, according to supporters and detractors alike. McCain has banked heavily on support from non-Republicans in his quest for the nomination.

A recent Mason-Dixon poll showed McCain within 5 points of Bush in Maryland.

"I think there's fairly high interest across the board. That's good for democracy," said Philip Baker-Shenk, McCain's Washington County chairman.

With 11 states holding primaries Tuesday, Baker-Shenk said Maryland voters may feel excited by the prospect of determining the nomination. He noted that 59 percent of the delegates needed to win the GOP nomination will be selected Tuesday.

"I think that quickens the pulse," he said.

Bill Bradley's inability to beat Vice President Gore in any primary so far may deflate turnout in Maryland's Democratic primary, though.

Rick L. Hemphill, chairman of the Washington County Democratic Central Committee, predicted turnout for the Democratic primary would be about the same as four years ago. The Republicans may draw better because the McCain-Bush race is still seen as competitive and because independents can vote this year, Hemphill said.

He criticized coverage of elections.

"I think the whole process being characterized as a horse race as a sporting event, does a disservice to everybody," he said. "It's more, 'Yeah, we won,' and 'Who hit the winning home run.'"

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