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.
"Our society does better when more people vote, when more people are engaged," Schall said.
Del. Heather R. Mizeur, a contender for the Democratic nomination, planned two community meetings to mobilize organizers for the early voting period, said Steven Hershkowitz, a campaign spokesman.
Hershkowitz said the campaign is "working to make sure voters come out in full force during early voting and Election Day."
On the GOP side, businessman and activist Larry Hogan launched a two-week bus tour, which will stop in Baltimore and each of the Maryland counties.
"We're encouraging people to get out and vote at each stop along the way," said Adam Dubitsky, a spokesman for Hogan.
Other Republican candidates for governor, Harford County Executive David R. Craig, Charles County business executive Charles Lollar and Del. Ron George of Anne Arundel, also are working to mobilize supporters.
But some political observers question whether offering early voting is worth the investment.
Todd Eberly, an assistant professor of political science at St. Mary's College, said turnout in the 1994 primary was about 40 percent.
Eberly said he expects turnout for this year's primary will be half that.
"Early voting is going to cost the counties millions, which may raise questions about whether early voting in a primary is really worth it if no one shows up," Eberly said.
The General Assembly attempted to create early voting opportunities in 2005, but the initiative was vetoed by then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. Lawmakers overrode the veto the next year, but opponents objected in court.
The Court of Appeals ruled in August 2006 that early voting violated the Maryland Constitution, and it was canceled. The General Assembly amended the constitution in 2007, and voters ratified the change in 2008. Last year, lawmakers decided to offer more sites, longer hours and an extra day.
Baltimore Sun reporters Erin Cox and Michael Dresser contributed to this article.
Expanded early voting options
•Maryland will offer 63 locations for voters to cast ballots during an extended early voting period that begins Thursday.
•The polls will open daily from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. through June 19.
For more information, visit http://www.elections.state.md.us.