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Turnout Worse Than Expected on Primary Day

Amy Gardner

After morning and lunch-hour rushes that looked more like a trickle, Northern Virginia election officials predicted historically low turnout in today's congressional primaries despite a fiercely competitive Democratic contest for an open seat in the 11th District, where Republican Tom Davis is retiring.


At Sleepy Hollow Elementary School, Democratic candidate Leslie Byrne greets a prospective voter and his son at the polls. (By Emma Patti -- washingtonpost.com)

Through much of the afternoon, precincts across the region looked like ghost towns. At the Fair Oaks precinct of central Fairfax County, just 15 ballots had been cast at 2 p.m., officials said.

"Turnout is, I don't want to say anemic, but turnout is very, very, very, very light," said Rokey Suleman, Fairfax County's general registrar, who predicted that turnout was unlikely to exceed 5 percent by the time polls close at 7 p.m. -- a dismal contrast to the one-third of registered voters who participated in February's presidential contest statewide. Turnout in the 2006 Democratic primary for U.S. Senate was 5.8 percent in Fairfax County.

In Fairfax City, general registrar Jeremiah Vangen reported just 605 ballots cast by 2 p.m. out of more than 14,000 registered voters. Polls close at 7 p.m.


At the Mantua polling place, Democratic candidate Gerry Connolly greets Mantua precinct captain Patty Parker before voting. (By Emma Patti -- washingtonpost.com)

"The presidential campaign has overshadowed this campaign," said Sally Ormsby, a precinct captain at the Price precinct in central Fairfax County. "People weren't focused on this, even though it's a huge competition."

In the hotly contested 11th District, which encompasses central and southern Fairfax County and a swath of Prince William County, low turnout adds a measure of uncertainty in a four-way primary battle between Fairfax County Board Chairman Gerald E. Connolly, former representative Leslie L. Byrne, former Navy pilot Doug Denneny and physical therapist Lori P. Alexander.

Connolly has raised the most money and governs the largest jurisdiction in Virginia (a job he was overwhelmingly reelected to in November). But observers said low turnout could benefit his chief rival, Byrne, who enjoys an intensely loyal base of support. Both candidates have claimed a strong get-out-the-vote organization.

"When you have turnout that low, anything can happen," said political scientist Larry J. Sabato of the University of Virginia. "I don't know what it is up there. Is it just that the traffic is so bad, that people avoid any unnecessary trip? They traditionally have the worst turnout anywhere in congressional primaries."

The 11th District primary is competitive in part because of Davis's impending retirement and in part because the district has been voting for Democratic candidates in recent statewide elections, rendering it fertile territory for a Democratic pickup this fall. Connolly and Byrne, the better-known and better-funded candidates, have directed most of their campaign strategy toward each other in sometimes sharply worded speeches and mail pieces.

"It's been lousy," said Doreen Williams, 81, a retired lawyer who voted for Connolly at Sleepy Hollow Elementary School, Byrne's home precinct. Williams is a longtime supporter of Connolly, but she said the tenor of Byrne's mail pieces was enough to drive her to vote against her.

The two candidates' positions are not terribly different on most issues. Both oppose the war in Iraq and support greater environmental conservation, an improved health care system and higher wages for the working class. As a result of their common ground, their campaigns have resorted to questions of character, achievement and electability.

Connolly has boasted of his five successful elections to local government (and noted Byrne's three defeats at the polls over the years), his leadership in a county that regularly wins awards for good management and his foreign policy experience working on the staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Byrne has touted her long-standing commitment to such progressive issues as abortion rights, health-care reform and living wages.

The winner of the Democratic primary in the 11th District will face Republican newcomer Keith S. Fimian, a small-business owner, in November.

Several factors are contributing to the exceedingly low numbers, officials said. First is the fact that, of the three congressional seats in Northern Virginia, two are held by long-serving and popular incumbents: Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D) of the 8th District (including Alexandria, Arlington, Falls Church and a portion of Fairfax County), and Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R) of the 10th District (encompassing Loudoun County, portions of Prince William and Fairfax counties and a swath of territory extending west to the Shenandoah Valley).

Both Moran and Wolf face primary challenges, and candidates are competing for the opposing party's nomination in both districts as well. But the incumbents enjoy a significant advantage in money and renown. Moran faces Matthew T. Famiglietti, a lawyer who has promoted himself as the more progressive Democratic candidate. Wolf, in his first primary challenge since winning his seat 28 years ago, faces fellow Republican Vern P. McKinley.

The two Republicans competing for the GOP nomination in Moran's district are Amit K. Singh, a self-described libertarian who owns a small engineering firm, and banking executive Mark W. Elmore, who lost a similar GOP primary attempt two years ago.
The Democrats seeking their party's nomination in Wolf's district are Georgetown University professor Judy M. Feder, who lost by a wide margin to Wolf in 2006, and retired Air Force Col. Mike R. Turner. Both have criticized Wolf's support of the Iraq war.

At the Ida Lee Recreation Center in Leesburg, Deborah Cooper, 38, a stay-at-home mom, said she was going to vote for Judy Feder because Feder "seemed like a solid Democrat" and "we're pretty Democratic down the line."

"We moved here two years ago from Silver Spring, and we were really nervous because we thought we were moving to Republican-central." But most of her neighbors, she said, are Democrats.

"As this area is growing, we're finding a more - i don't know if liberal is the right word - a more diverse population, and i think government is usually slow to reflect that," she said. "We're just trying to turn the tide here."

Another factor in the dismal turnout is the fact that the Washington region's television market encompasses Northern Virginia, the District and Maryland, making it an exceedingly expensive -- and inefficient -- campaign method. As a result candidates have relied primarily on yard signs, targeted mail pieces and advertisements on cable television and radio.

Today's primary elections have also been overshadowed by the attention-grabbing presidential campaign, which attracted record primary turnout in Virginia back in February.

"This election is completely under the radar," said Suleman, the Fairfax registrar. "I didn't see campaign signs until a week ago. I don't think a lot of people even know it was happening."

Staff writer Sandhya Somashekhar contributed to this report.

By Amy Gardner  |  June 10, 2008; 3:00 PM ET
Categories:  Amy Gardner , Election 2008/Congress , Frank R. Wolf , Gerald E. Connolly , James P. Moran Jr. , Leslie L. Byrne  
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