Early voting

A scene from early voting ahead of the 2012 general election. (Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun / October 31, 2012)

With more than a dozen new locations and longer hours, the State Board of Elections will begin Maryland's most extensive early voting period yet on Thursday.

Early voting will be available at 63 locations — including at least one in every county — from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily through June 19. The early voting period opens for the third time in the state's history, following a series of legislative hurdles and legal battles over constitutional questions and concerns that the system invites fraud and disproportionately favors Democrats.

Now campaigns across the state and civic groups, such as the League of Women Voters, are pouring resources into getting voters to the polls by offering rides, knocking on doors and handing out literature.

"In Maryland, we have no excuse: All of the doors are open for you to vote," said Larry Young, a WOLB-AM radio show host and former state senator.

Young is working with labor officials, activists and ministers to build interest in the primary, which features a full slate of candidates for governor, Maryland congressional seats and a slew of state and local offices.

In addition to voting at one of the early polling locations, those who are registered to vote can request absentee ballots. Voters can ask to receive an absentee ballot by mail until June 17 or electronically until June 20.

"We need to remind one another that there is an early primary, and that primary is June 24," said Gov. Martin O'Malley, who held a news conference to encourage Marylanders to take advantage of early voting. "We do want a higher turnout. We do want democracy to work."

O'Malley said that while other states have erected obstacles to voting, Maryland has tried to make it easier. He pointed to efforts to extend the franchise to rehabilitated ex-offenders and to make it easier for members of the military and people with mental illness to cast ballots.

But turnout in the early election periods has been low. In 2010, about 25 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the Maryland primary. Only about 2.5 percent participated in that early voting period.

Voters didn't turn out in big numbers for the 2012 primary, either. That election, which featured candidates competing for the GOP nomination for president, drew about 19 percent of voters. About 2.4 percent cast ballots during the early voting period.

Michael J. Hanmer, an associate professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, said that while the expansion makes voting easier, research shows that convenience isn't enough to get more people to vote.

"Making something easy that people don't want to do isn't going to change the fact that they don't want to do it," Hanmer said. "You need something to change those motivational factors."

California was the first state to offer early voting in the late 1970s and a lot of momentum occurred around early voting in 1990, especially in larger states, Hanmer said.

The task for campaign strategists to figure out is how to use the early voting period to bring in voters who are registered but not participating.

"Motivating those people is incredibly difficult," Hanmer said. "We have to figure out why they stopped voting or registered and drifted away, and trying to figure that out is a real challenge."

Gubernatorial campaigns say they're doing all they can to mobilize voters.

About 100 volunteers with Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler's Democratic campaign for governor are expected to knock on 4,500 doors a day and call 2,500 voters across the state during the early voting period, said Katie Hill, a Gansler spokeswoman. In all, the campaign expects to knock on 30,000 doors during the weeklong early voting period.

"Early voting is critically important to our campaign," Hill said.

The front-runner for the Democratic nomination, Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, is deploying a similar strategy.

Justin Schall, Brown's campaign manager, said the campaign has 200 people knocking on doors across Maryland and others making 20,000 phone calls a night. He expects to triple that during the early voting period.