With competitive primaries, early voting surges in Maryland

Crowds gather for early voting Thursday afternoon at the Baltimore City Public Safety Training Center on Northern Parkway.
Crowds gather for early voting Thursday afternoon at the Baltimore City Public Safety Training Center on Northern Parkway. (Tim Prudente / The Baltimore Sun)

Early voting ended Thursday with record-high turnout across Maryland for a primary election — three times the last presidential primary in 2012.

Numbers were up across the state, but they surged particularly in Baltimore, where seven times the number of early voters cast ballots as they did in the last mayoral primary in 2011. More than 260,000 people voted statewide, more than 30,000 of them in Baltimore.


"We're seeing the highest early-voting turnout for a primary we've ever seen," said Donna J. Duncan, assistant deputy administrator for election policy at the Maryland State Board of Elections.

Political analysts attributed the higher turnout to a range of factors. Maryland has more early-voting centers, and they are open longer than in the past. A cultural shift has led reliable voters to cast their ballots early, and competitive primary contests are drawing people to the polls.


"The more people are aware of early voting, the more they're going to take advantage of it," said Todd Eberly, associate professor of political science at St. Mary's College of Maryland. "You have competitive primaries on the Democratic and Republican sides for president and for Senate. You have a competitive race for mayor of Baltimore. You have a perfect storm.

"If turnout wasn't up, you'd have to close up shop and say we no longer have a democracy."

In a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-to-1, early-voting turnout was stronger on the Democratic side. As of Thursday evening, more than 190,000 Democrats had cast ballots, and more than 66,000 Republicans. Unaffiliated voters also have cast ballots in permitted races, such as for school board seats.

More than 1,900 people voted using same-day registration, new this year and available only during early voting.

In Baltimore, turnout was strongest in the northwest, where a sizable Jewish population lives. Maryland's primary election falls on April 26, during Passover, and some voters said that prompted them to vote early.

On Thursday at the Baltimore City Public Safety Training Center on Northern Parkway — the busiest early-voting location in the city — Ellen Lehrman Schwarz paused from her Passover preparations of making vegetable soup with matzo balls and whipped rutabagas.

"It's not good timing for us," Schwarz, a resident of Park Heights, said of the Tuesday primary election.

Sholom Lowenthal, also of Park Heights, said early voting was "very nice and very smooth.

"Technically, people can vote [during Passover], but it's better not to," he said. "That's why I'm here."

Marylanders' votes are being courted this year in both parties' presidential primaries, in which Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are competing on the Democratic side and Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and John Kasich are competing on the Republican side.

There are also competitive primary races for U.S. Senate — especially between Democrats Donna Edwards and Chris Van Hollen — and for many Baltimore City Council seats. Candidates for Maryland's eight seats in the U.S. House of Representatives also are on the ballot.

Baltimore's leading mayoral candidates — state Sen. Catherine E. Pugh, former Mayor Sheila Dixon, lawyer Elizabeth Embry, businessman David L. Warnock and City Councilman Carl Stokes, all Democrats — also pushed to get voters to the polls. The campaigns of both Pugh and Dixon offered supporters bus rides to early-voting stations.


During the last mayoral primary election in 2011 — won by Stephanie Rawlings-Blake — 3,695 people voted early. In the last presidential primary, when President Barack Obama ran uncontested on the Democratic side, 76,124 people voted early in Maryland.

"Normally, early voting only cannibalizes Election Day voting," Eberly said. "In Maryland, early voting wasn't cannibalizing anything, because no one was doing it.

"This year, you think about what's happened in Baltimore in 2015 and this incredible cast of folks who want to be mayor. It doesn't surprise me at all that people want to get out and have a say. We should expect early voting to be up because of the nature of the races. It would be wonderful to see a real surge in turnout."

Catalina Byrd, a Baltimore-based political consultant, said she wasn't convinced a rise in early voting would increase overall turnout. She said people who would have voted April 26 are just choosing to cast ballots earlier.

"It almost takes a decade for people to catch up to a change like early voting," she said. "I don't think it's any new surge of people who are coming to polls."

Byrd said she expected white candidates for mayor — Embry and Warnock — to do better than they have in polling that has indicated Pugh and Dixon are the front-runners. She noted that the city has lost black residents every year since the 1990s, while gaining white residents over the past seven years.

"The electorate is changing," she said.

In Baltimore, for the first time, the election for mayor and City Council is at the same time as the presidential campaign. The change in the city's schedule was intended to increase turnout.

There were 67 early-voting locations around the state, including six in Baltimore and nine in Baltimore County.

In Baltimore County, nearly 40,000 people had voted as of Thursday evening. More than 28,000 had voted in Anne Arundel County, 18,000 in Howard County, 12,000 in Harford County and 5,000 in Carroll County.



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