Starting Saturday, Marylanders can go to the polls and cast their votes for president and other matters on this fall's ballot.
But those who wish to enter the voting booth before Election Day shouldn't wait too long. Maryland's early-voting period runs only through Thursday, a six-day window that is one of the shortest in the country and that could be cut even shorter by Hurricane Sandy. After that, voters will need to wait until Nov. 6.
The State Board of Elections is anticipating that as many as 20 percent of Maryland voters will join millions of their fellow Americans in the increasingly popular practice of casting their ballots in person before Election Day.
Other Marylanders who like to get a jump on things have been voting by mail, using absentee ballots, since Sept. 21. That's the same day the nation's earliest in-person early voting began, in Idaho and South Dakota.
Maryland officials say they've kept early voting short here largely because of budget concerns. For the same reason, though they encourage early voting, election officials aren't waging an outreach campaign.
"There's no funds to do that," said Ross Goldstein, deputy director of the State Board of Elections. "The parties are out there and starting to incorporate it into their get-out-the-vote strategy."
Some voters may choose early voting as a strategy for avoiding lines on Election Day, when a long list of state and local ballot questions could slow the process.
"It's a longer ballot, so people will take longer to vote," Goldstein said.
The campaign committees on both sides of the most hotly contested ballot issues — Question 6 on same-sex marriage and Question 7 on expanded gambling — are gearing up efforts to persuade their supporters to vote early.
Proponents of the Dream Act, the measure that would allow in-state college tuition for some children of illegal immigrants, also are active. Supporters are planning a march and rally Saturday in Silver Spring specifically to encourage early voting. Spokeswoman Kristin Ford said supporters will march from a church to an early-voting center and cast ballots en masse.
Severe weather could disrupt early voting. Gov. Martin O'Malley issued an executive order Friday, declaring a state of emergency ahead of Hurricane Sandy, which is expected to hit the East Coast in the next few days. Under the law, the state can now make emergency changes to the early-voting schedule and locations.
State officials are "actively monitoring weather developments in order to determine whether changes to the early voting schedule may be necessary to protect public safety," the governor's office said in a statement.
Early voting — as distinguished from absentee voting — was introduced in Maryland for the 2010 gubernatorial election after a long political and legal struggle. That year, early votes accounted for 6.3 percent of the state's votes in the general election. Early voting was also permitted during this spring's primary.
Maryland Democrats have long championed early voting, while Republicans have been cool to the idea. In 2006, when Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. was governor, Democrats passed early voting by overriding his veto. But the law was struck down by the Court of Appeals, which said an amendment to the Maryland Constitution was necessary. Voters approved that in 2008.
The law allows populous jurisdictions, such as Baltimore and Baltimore County, to open as many as five early voting sites. Smaller counties have just one.
While Maryland is a solidly Democratic state, heavily Republican Oklahoma is the only early-voting state with a shorter time period. Early in-person voting started before Maryland in almost 30 other states.
Outside Maryland, the approaches to early voting are all over the board. Some heavily blue states such as Massachusetts and Rhode Island don't open their polls until Election Day, while California allows in-person voting almost a month before the election. Some deeply red states such as Mississippi don't allow early voting at all, while others allow it for periods of up to seven weeks.
Paul Gronke, director of the Early Voting Information Center at Reed College in Oregon, said early voting wasn't a partisan issue at the time most states adopted such laws. In many states, he said, its adoption has been driven by elections officials of both parties.
"Clerks generally like this because it reduces pressure on Election Day — as long as the funding is there," he said.
Gronke said early voting has won wide acceptance in the South and West but has run into resistance in the more tradition-minded Northeast. "It seems more geographic than partisan," he said.
Early voting could have an impact on several swing states in the presidential election – notably Iowa, Ohio and Colorado. Encouraging early voting has been a keystone of President Obama's campaign from its beginning — the president himself cast his own vote Friday in Illinois — but Mitt Romney's camp has been encouraging Republicans in those states to vote early as well.
A look at the websites of the two parties in Maryland illustrates their differing attitudes toward early voting. On the Republican Party home page, no mention of early voting can be found. The Democrats, meanwhile, give it a prominent place at the top of the page, with a link to information on when and where to cast early ballots.
Maryland Democrats are planning several events around early voting, including an appearance by O'Malley's March, the governor's Irish band, at a pub in Silver Spring. O'Malley himself plans to vote early.
David Ferguson, executive director of the Maryland Republican Party, said the state GOP is encouraging early votes. He said the GOP will deploy workers at early voting sites, but not just to encourage votes for Republicans. The party also will have poll watchers out to make sure nobody votes more than once.
"We want to make sure the process has integrity," he said.
John T. Willis, a former Maryland secretary of state who now teaches government and public policy at the University of Baltimore, said Republicans would gain from devising strategies to get their voters to the poll early rather than fighting the concept.
"I don't see us going back," he said.
Early voting could be a relief for voters in some counties where they will face many ballot questions in a addition to the seven statewide issues. Anne Arundel voters, for instance, will decide 15 local referendum questions. The county is large enough that it can offer five early voting centers.
The state's early-voting law prescribed the dates and times for the 2010 and 2012 primary and general elections, but is silent about future election years, Goldstein said. If the General Assembly doesn't act, he said, the board would decide on the dates for 2014.
Del. Jon Cardin, a Baltimore County Democrat who heads the House subcommittee on elections, said he expects the General Assembly to take a fresh look at Maryland's early-voting program after this year's election, including the question of whether to open more locations. He said a key reason Maryland doesn't offer more voting days is the cost.
Willis said he expects there may be pressure to extend Maryland's early-voting period across two weekends. One reason, he said, is simply that voters like it, including his 98-year-old mother.
"If the weather's bad, you can skip that day. You can go on a day of good weather," he said.
Early voting sites
Early voting sites will be open in Baltimore and each of Maryland's 23 counties Saturday through Thursday. Hours are noon to 6 p.m. Sunday and 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. all other days. Sites in the Baltimore area are listed here. For other locations, go to http://www.electionsmaryland.com or call 1-800-222-8683.
ANNE ARUNDEL COUNTY
West County Library
1325 Annapolis Road
North County Library
Glen Burnie 21060
Severna Park Library
45 McKinsey Road
Severna Park 21146
Boys & Girls Clubs
121 South Villa Ave.
25 Stepneys Lane
Public Safety Training Facility
(Old Pimlico Middle School)
3500 W. Northern Parkway
St. Brigids Parish Center
900 S. East Ave.
Maritime Industries Academy School #431
5001 Sinclair Lane
League for People with Disabilities
1111 E. Cold Spring Lane
Edmondson Westside Sr. High School #400
501 Athol Ave.
7720 York Road
Bloomsbury Community Center
106 Bloomsbury Ave.
Honeygo Community Center
9033 Honeygo Blvd.
Perry Hall 21128
North Point Library
1716 Merritt Blvd.
Randallstown Community Center
3505 Resource Drive
Westminster Senior Activities Center
125 Stoner Ave.
McFaul Activity Center
525 W. MacPhail Road
Bel Air 21014
Florence Bain Senior Center
5470 Ruth Keeton Way
Ellicott City Senior Center
9401 Frederick Road
Ellicott City 21042
Ridgely's Run Community Center
8400 Mission Road
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