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Early primary voting is test run for general election

With the start Friday of early voting, Baltimore Sun colleague Julie Bykowicz reports, for the first time in state history all Maryland voters will be able to cast their ballots ahead of the Sept. 14 primary elections.

Candidates across the state are viewing this round of early voting as something of a dry run for the weeklong voting period that will precede the general election in November. Only registered Democrats and Republicans can participate in the primaries.

The new system has cast office-seekers in the role of de facto educators, explaining the process to voters. Many also include early voting information in their campaign literature and have begun mentioning it in automated phone calls to voters. Many, including the governor and his chief competitor, hope to lead by example by casting their own votes early.

“It's kind of crept up on us,” Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley said at an early voting rally this week in Annapolis with legislative leaders and the legislative black caucus. “It is still new to people as I encounter them on the street. Let's hope for a big turnout.”

The incumbent faces only token opposition in the Democratic gubernatorial primary; his two challengers have little name recognition or money. But aides have said early voting in the primary will provide a valuable preview of how the process will unfold in November.

In the Republican gubernatorial primary, former Gov. Robert L.Ehrlich Jr. must face down Montgomery County businessman Brian Murphy, who is far less widely known but drew national attention when former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin announced her support for him this summer.

“It’s hard to figure out what early voting means in the Republican primary, given that this is the first time,” Murphy said this week. “We’re aware of it, but it’s a nonfactor.”

Murphy and others — Republicans and Democrats alike — predicted that only a tiny fraction of registered voters would cast their ballots early in the primary election. In Maryland’s 2006 gubernatorial primary, about 855,000 people voted, less than 30 percent of those who were eligible.

Voter registration has ticked up slightly since then, but primary elections tend to bring out only the most committed voters, political analysts say. Most predict that early voters in the primaries will be people who would have cast absentee ballots otherwise. States with long-established early voting typically see about 20 percent of votes cast before election day.

Ross Goldstein, deputy state elections director at the Maryland Board of Elections, said the state is ready.

There are 46 early voting centers across the state, compared to about 1,900 polling places on Election Day, he said. Each will be monitored by Democratic and Republican elections judges, just as on primary election day. Neither party has reported problems staffing the centers.

All early voting centers are open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday through Thursday, with the exception of Sunday, when they are closed. Registered voters may cast ballots at any center in their home county.

Populous places have several early voting sites — there are five in Baltimore — while more rural areas such as Washington County have just one.

“I don’t anticpate that large of a turnout for early voting, at least this county,” said Del. Christopher B. Shank, a Republican in a tight primary election angainst an incumbent Republican senator in the area. “But smart campaigns have to be prepared and get their message out early, not just on Sept. 14. You’ve got to balance the importance of that day against the people who might vote early.”

One way that candidates appear to be striking that balance is by encouraging early voting. Many are leading by example: O’Malley, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown and Democratic House Speaker Michael E. Busch of Anne Arundel County plan to vote Friday.

Baltimore State’s Attorney Patricia Jessamy said she plans to vote Friday in the Democratic primary so that she can see for herself how the process works.

“As we go out to community, we’re telling people that they can vote early, and they seem surprised,” said Jessamy, who faces the well-financed and police-backed Gregg Bernstein in her toughest primary in years. “Our message to people is: vote early, vote on the 14th, but don’t vote late.”

Bernstein has no plan to vote early but has been trumpeting the process in his robust social media campaign.

Early voting has posed a bit of an awkward situation for Ehrlich, who led the charge against it while he was governor.

Ehrlich composed a YouTube message in which he attempts to reconcile his opposition to early voting with his desire for you to vote early for him.

In the video, released Friday, Ehrlich says he saw early voting as a “solution in search of a problem.” Still, he says his campaign hopes to take “full advantage” of what is now state law.

His position has not gone unnoticed by his primary challenger or his likely general election opponent.

“Ehrlich's change of heart on early voting [is] nothing more than an opportunistic about-face by a career politician,” Murphy said in a release Tuesday, some of his strongest criticism to date of Ehrlich.

O'Malley's campaign spokesman said in a message to supporters Tuesday that early voting was a “no-brainer for public officials on both sides of the aisle, but if Bob Ehrlich had had his way early voting would never have been possible.”

The Maryland General Assembly approved early voting in 2005, Ehrlich vetoed it that May and then the legislature overrode his veto the next year.

It didn’t matter. The state’s highest court ruled in 2006 that the state consitution is clear: Voting day is a specific day, meaning the question of whether to change how the elction works needed to be put directly to voters. Marylanders voted overwhelmingly in 2008 to approve it, and the legislature set up the process.

Today is its debut.

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