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With Romney running strong, early ballot returns lighter than usual

With polls and pollsters pointing to Mitt Romney as a strong frontrunner in Tuesday’s winner-take-all GOP primary here, election officials in larger counties said returns of early ballots have been lower than expected.

About half of Arizona’s 1.2 million registered Republicans requested early ballots for the primary election, which also includes the Green Party.

The latest polls showed Romney with a solid lead over Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul.

Maricopa County mailed 379,000 early ballots and had received 225,000 of them, about 60 percent, by Monday. Pima County had received about 48,000 of the 85,000 early ballots it sent out, a 56 percent return rate thus far.

Recorder Helen Purcell said Maricopa County usually sees an 80 percent return rate for early ballots, adding that the lack of Democratic primary could be reducing interest.

“There’s a lack of competition within parties,” she said. “That may be a reason why this is the case.”

It was much the same story in several other counties contacted by Cronkite News Service, though Yavapai County had received 66 percent of its 32,000 early ballots by Monday and Recorder Leslie M. Hoffman predicted a strong turnout.

“We have a lot of interested and very passionate citizens,” she said. “We have a lot of older people in our county, and older people seem to be pretty politically passionate.”

Bruce Merrill, a political scientist and pollster with Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy, said many voters see the race as a walk for Romney.

“For the past months, the assumption has been that Mitt Romney will win,” he said. “So I think to some degree there is a lack of enthusiasm.”

Merrill said he expects about 10 percent of the primary vote to be cast at polling places.

In 2008, with U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona on the ballot, Republicans posted a 51 percent turnout.

Matt Roberts, a spokesman for the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office, said Arizonans should still make their voices heard Tuesday.

“Regardless of what people feel and what the results could be, I still think that voters feel like they have a responsibility to exercise their civic duty and participate in the election,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a sense, at least in this office, that the election is over.”

Early ballots in some counties:

• Maricopa: 379,000 sent, 225,000 returned
• Pima: 85,000 sent, 48,000 returned
• Coconino: 9,200 sent, 4,800 returned
• Yavapai: 32,000 sent, 21,000 returned
• Mohave: 12,000 sent, 6,000 returned
• Pinal: 21,000 sent, 13,000 returned

Note: Totals are through Monday.

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