Voter turnout was light at eastern Massachusetts polling stations early this morning in spite of a hotly contested battle for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination that has cost more than $24 million. However, with mild weather predicted and polling stations scheduled to remain open until 8 p.m., the voting pace could still pick up.
Just 19 people voted during the first 50 minutes of voting at the A.C. Whelan School in Revere, while at the Oak Square YMCA in Brighton, only 17 people out of 870 registered voters had voted in the first 35 minutes. Even at the polling stations where the three Democratic candidates for governor voted before 8 a.m., there were no lines.
"People should care, but they don't," said Rose Napolitano, poll warden at the Whelan school, where officials predicted less than a 20 percent turnout. "It's a beautiful day. They should be here, but they aren't."
Election analysts have been expecting a turnout similar to the Democratic primary in 2002 when 767,000 voters chose state treasurer Shannon O'Brien as the gubernatorial nominee over four rivals. An early indicator of likely turnout, the number of people who apply in advance for absentee ballots, is roughly the same as four years ago, according to a spokesman for Secretary of State William Galvin. He did not have final numbers available.
But primary voter turnout is especially difficult to predict, largely because independents are eligible to vote in either party's primary. With Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey running unopposed for the Republican nomination for governor, the three-way Democratic race is likely to get most of the independent voters, giving them the power -- theoretically at least -- to decide the election since independents outnumber the state's registered Democrats 1,948,063 to 1,453,689.
In reality, Democrats are much more likely to vote than independents, making Democratic strongholds such as Boston and Somerville key battlegrounds for statewide races. Just two eastern Massachusetts counties, Suffolk and Middlesex, account for more than one-third of all Democrats.
Gabrieli's campaign has been hoping for a larger-than-expected turnout because he has polled especially well among independent voters. But it depends on who those unexpected voters are. Attorney General Tom Reilly's supporters will be looking for bigger turnout among senior citizens and in blue-collar communities such as Fall River and New Bedford to give him a boost, while Deval Patrick backers are looking for a strong showing in places such as the growing suburbs between Routes 128 and 495 and in highly educated communities like Cambridge.
"People are buzzing. Everyone seems to know it's election day," said Gabrieli spokesman Dan Cence, who accompanied the candidate to vote at his precinct at the State House in Boston. He said the campaign is still optimistic that turnout will outpace predictions.
Primary turnout is also influenced by factors having nothing to do with the campaigns, especially hotly contested local races. This year, primary races for district attorney in Bristol and Worcester counties along with state senator Dianne Wilkerson's write-in campaign against three rivals were expected to draw additional voters, but it was not immediately clear which gubernatorial candidate would benefit most.
Also on today's ballot is a three-way race for the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor between former Brookline selectwoman Deborah Goldberg, Timothy P. Murray, and Andrea Silbert.
Kristen Green and Stephanie Siek contributed to this report