Sniper Attacks Could Affect Election Day

With midterm elections across the country already facing low voter turnout, officials in the greater Washington, D.C.-area say they are trying to address fears of a sniper attack that could take an additional bite out of poll numbers on Nov. 5.

"I would hope, sincerely, that [voters] are not intimidated by this fellow, or fellows, if it is a group," said Larry Lamborn, registrar of voters for Fairfax City, Va., not far from the Oct. 14 shooting at the Home Depot in Falls Church. "I suspect that some people will be intimidated, in which case, psychologically, he’s won."

Historically, federal midterm elections -- the two-year mark between presidential elections when a third of the Senate and the entire House are elected -- draw low voter turnout. According to the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, the 1998 midterm election drew only 36 percent of the voting age population, the lowest number since 1942.

But add the danger of a sniper on the loose to the mix, and a new record could very well be established, at least for the mid-Atlantic region of Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C., where voter participation is usually below the national average.

Despite hopes that authorities might be closer to catching the perpetrator responsible for 12 shootings and nine deaths to date, on Monday officials said they are developing plans to make voters feel safer on Election Day, assuming the case has not been solved by then.

"We naturally are looking for ways to increase security, so we've added another person to each school to keep an eye on the doors," said Charlotte Cleary, registrar of voters for Arlington County, Va., right next door to the Home Depot shooting in Falls Church.

Cleary said her office oversees 46 polling stations and usually has between 45 and 55 percent voter turnout during midterms.

"We just want our voters to feel as safe as they possibly can," Cleary said.

Juanita D. Pitchford, registrar of Fredericksburg, Va., famous for its Civil War history and now infamous as the site of the Oct. 4 shooting, said she expects turnout to be pretty sizeable because of a local bond issue on the ballot that will affect funding for Mary Washington College, located in town.

"As of right now, we do have security lined up for the polling sites," Pitchford said. "We don’t expect a heavy turnout, but a good-sized one."

Most officials in the area say that they have not heard a lot of concern from voters so far, so have decided to take a "wait and see" attitude, hoping that the serial murders will be solved within the next two weeks.

"From what we can tell, everything is basically on track," said Alisha Alexander, assistant administrator for the Prince George County Board of Elections, who said as of Monday, there has been no word from state officials about extra security.

"Right now, things have not changed," added Shirley Boggs, registrar for Spotsylvania County, which houses Fredericksburg and Massaponax, site of the Oct. 11 sniper attack.

Nonetheless, Boggs has placed calls regarding the possibility of extra security and expects it to be a major issue at the election board meeting next week.

"I did have one candidate on the local level call today, concerned about his outside poll workers," she said, noting that campaigners by law must keep 40 feet from polling entrances.

"The chief [of police] is hopeful, obviously, that this attacker will be caught or killed, and then the issue of security will fade away," said Lamborn, who oversees six polling stations in Fairfax City. "He would like to wait until closer to the day before committing his forces. I understand that."

Of course, this year, it may not be just the sniper attacks that keep voters from venturing out to pull their levers.

There are few ballot referenda causing a stir this election, and aside from the Maryland governor’s race between Democratic Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Republican Rep. Robert Ehrlich, and the tight congressional battle between Republican Rep. Connie Morella and Democrat state Sen. Chris Van Hollen in the 8th District, many of the races are noncompetitive. Several incumbents are running unopposed by a major party.

Among those with little opposition are Republican Rep. Tom Davis, who represents Fairfax and Prince William counties, where the Manassas and Falls Church attacks occurred; GOP Rep. Jo Ann Davis, who represents Fredericksburg; and Republican Sen. John Warner. The most exciting referendum question is a half-cent sales tax increase to pay for easing Northern Virginia's congested roadways.

"I would hope we would get between 30 and 40 percent, but it will be interesting to see, with the combination of the security threat and the lack of voter issues, if it will suppress turnout," said Lamborn. "I fear that will be the case."