State sees low turnout in first early voting run

Voters came to the polls early — but not so often.

Maryland's first-ever early voting period closed Thursday with about 2.5 percent of those eligible to vote in the primary election doing so ahead of time at centers across the state. That's about 77,000 people out of the state's 3.2 million registered Democrats and Republicans, who are the only voters who can participate in primaries.

Early voting ended with a flourish, election officials said, with at least 18,000 votes cast on Thursday — more than any other day. The six-day early voting period began last Friday; the state's 46 voting centers were closed Sunday. The many who sat out early voting can cast their ballots in Tuesday's primary.

Maryland is one of 32 states with early voting, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. States with long-established early voting typically see at least 20 percent of votes cast before Election Day, though that number does not distinguish between primary and general elections.

Based on previous Maryland gubernatorial primaries, election officials are expecting a 30 percent turnout, meaning that early voting would make up about 8 percent of the votes cast in the primary.

Paul Gronke, director of the Early Voting Information Center at Reed College in Oregon, said that percentage seems slight. "I would expect more people to be taking advantage of it," he said.

Maryland election officials had expected the low turnout in early voting. It's new to the state, and primaries typically draw fewer people than general elections. In addition, the weeklong early voting period included the Labor Day weekend and Rosh Hashana and, for many families, coincided with the start of school.

Linda Lamone, the state elections administrator, said early voting "went very smoothly, though we didn't have a whole lot of people vote."

"As an election administrator, you like to see lots of people vote," she said. "On the other hand, this gave our election judges the opportunity to hone their skills."

Lamone said she fielded no major complaints about early voting.

Counties with heavier turnout included Kent and Talbot on the Eastern Shore, where more than 5 percent of those eligible voted early. In sheer numbers, Baltimore County and Prince George's County topped the list; each had more than 10,000 early voters.

Washington County had the lowest percentage — less than 1 percent — in early voting, even though Del. Christopher B. Shank is locked in a tight Republican primary race with Sen. Donald F. Munson for his state Senate seat.

Shank said last week that he expected few to take advantage of early voting because the county's one center, in downtown Hagerstown, is not convenient for most residents. Shank was saving his vote for Election Day, citing superstition.

As of Wednesday, more than 41,000 Democrats and about 17,000 Republicans had voted early. The state has more than twice as many registered Democrats.

The state Board of Elections updated early voter numbers daily, though Thursday's county-by-county numbers were not available last night. The board will not count the votes for each candidate until Election Day.

Absentee ballots also must be counted. For the first time this year, voters needed no excuse to vote by mail. The elections board said more than 46,000 voters had requested absentee ballots for the primary, though only about 9,300 had been returned by Wednesday.

Josh White, former head of the Maryland Democratic Party and O'Malley's campaign manager in 2006, said early voting could have an Election Day impact, essentially serving as a weeklong advertisement.

"Even though early voting may not be a boon yet, we should see whether it makes a difference in boosting turnout overall," he said. "Most people don't think about the election until a day or two ahead of time, but this year was different with all the talk of early voting."

White, now a lobbyist, voted Saturday afternoon in his home Anne Arundel County.

Early voting does not appear to drive up turnout, other election watchers say, or change the kind of people who vote. Rather, it "shuffles voters around," Gronke said.

Densely populated places such as Baltimore and Prince George's counties had up to five early voting sites, while rural counties had one each. Candidates in hotly contested primaries frequented centers in their area, though some said they abandoned the idea of daily poll-watching when they saw that not many voters were coming.

Bill Ferguson, a Democrat challenging Sen. George W. Della Jr. for his seat representing Baltimore's waterfront areas, had planned to be a staple at the early voting center on South East Street in Canton but said the low turnout did not justify the effort.

"I decided a better use of my time would be to call undecided voters," he said.

The center was fairly sleepy Thursday afternoon. Stiff breezes upended some the dozens of candidate signs marking the area, but 30 minutes ticked by with nary a voter.

An elderly couple, both Democrats and lifelong Baltimore residents, said they appreciated having seven chances (including primary election day on Tuesday) to make their voices heard.

"I might be dead by Election Day!" exclaimed the robust-looking George Lawrence, 90, as his wife, Doris, 89, chuckled.

"Really, you never know how your health is going to be from day to day," she said. "We feel fortunate just to be up and walking around today."

A publicity campaign featuring a slick website and high-profile early voters, including Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley and Republican former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., helped spread the word. The Maryland Democratic Party joined forces with the Maryland Republican Party to urge voters to make use of the new system.

O'Malley and his wife, Katie Curran O'Malley, voted the first day, Sept. 3. They were joined by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake at Pimlico Middle School on Northern Parkway.

Even Ehrlich — who vetoed early voting when he was governor and has criticized it as "a solution in search of a problem" — voted early. He and his wife, Kendel, cast their ballots Thursday at the Annapolis Senior Activity Center.

Asked why he decided to vote early instead of primary election day, he replied, "I don't know. I guess because it is the law. It is what we have, so we're doing it. There is no great thought that went into that."

The early voting plan also will be used for the general election: Registered voters can cast their ballots from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Oct. 22 through Oct. 28, except for Sunday, Oct. 24. The state will use the same voting centers.

Baltimore Sun reporter Annie Linskey contributed to this article.

julie.bykowicz@baltsun.com

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