Local political observers hope two contested -- and ultimately decisive -- Democratic campaigns will spur a larger-than-usual voter turnout in Berkshire County for today's state primary election.
In essence, voters will settle the race for Middle Berkshire District register of deeds and 1st Congressional District, as the respective Democratic primary winners will run unopposed in the November general election.
Polls across Massachusetts are open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Patsy Harris, Jody L. Phillips and Scott M. Pignatelli are vying for a six-year term to replace current Register of Deeds Andrea F. Nuciforo Jr. The Middle Berkshire District registry covers Becket, Dalton, Hinsdale, Lee, Lenox, Otis, Peru, Pittsfield, Richmond, Stockbridge, Tyringham and Washington.
Meanwhile, Nuciforo is challenging U.S. Rep. Richard E. Neal, D-Springfield, and author/political activist Bill Shein for the newly reconfigured 1st Congressional District. U.S. Rep. John Olver currently represents the district that includes all 32 Berkshire County cities and towns. Olver isn't seeking re-election after a 20-year career on Capitol Hill.
Today's state primary also features three Democrats and two Republicans seeking their party nominations for the Eighth Councillor District, which includes all of Berkshire County, one of eight seats on the Governor's Council, which approves gubernatorial appoint ments. They will square off on Nov. 6.
Historically, primary elections have between 10 and 20 percent voter turnout, according to local and state elections officials.
"I do think the two competitive races will push voter turnout beyond the 9.6 percent we had in 2008 [a presidential election year], but not as high as I would like it to be," said Pittsfield City Clerk Linda M. Tyer.
Secretary of Commonwealth William F. Galvin, who oversees state elections, anticipates a statewide voter turnout at about 15 percent, and possibly higher in political hotbeds such as Berkshire County.
"There are a number of contested primaries for Congress and there are contests in various places around the state that will draw voters to the polls," said Galvin in a statement on Wednesday.
Voter turnout could hinge on how many registered voters listed as unenrolled -- unaffiliated with a political party -- show up at the polls, according to local elections officials and political observers.
"Candidates often ask for the list of unenrolled voters because they can be the swing votes," said Dalton Town Clerk Barbara Suriner.
The so-called independent voters make up more than half of the electorate in Berkshire County (52.9 percent) and Middle Berkshire District (50.2 percent). Democrats and unenrolled combined account for nearly 90 percent of the registered voters countywide and in the Middle Berkshire District.
Unenrolled voters can choose which party primary to participate in. Voters registered as Democrats, Repub licans or another political party can only vote in that party's primary.
Suriner has noticed some Dalton Republicans giving up their party affiliation so they can vote in the register of deeds and congressional races.
"I've seen a lot of people change from Republican to unenrolled," she said.
Longtime Pittsfield Demo crat Mary K. O'Brien expects a "decent" voter turnout, especially among unenrolled voters, if they have done their homework.
"It all boils down to people being informed -- have they educated themselves about the races," said O'Brien, former Middle Berkshire District register of deeds of 30 years.
Despite the highly competative local Democratic primary, local elections officials say they are worried a Thursday primary could impede voter turnout. Except for 1964 and 1988, Massachusetts the past 50 years has held its primary elections on a Tuesday, according to state elections officials.
Area city and town clerks say they continue to remind voters to mark Sept. 6 as primary day.
"I was setting up the polling booths [Wednesday] when I had some townspeople ask if I was getting ready for next Tuesday," said Otis Town Clerk Lyn Minery. "I said, ‘No, it's for [today].'"
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Primary primer ...
n The state primary is today, with polls open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. in all 351 Massachusetts cities and towns.
n Voters registered in a political party can only cast ballots in that party's primary.
n Unenrolled voters are eligible to vote in the state primary. However, they must choose which party primary to participate in after arriving at the polls on Election Day.
n Absentee ballots must be properly filled out and received before polls close at 8 p.m.