Maryland early voting is up 55 percent over 2014 turnout. What does that surge tell us?

Marylanders have cast early primary votes at a record clip so far this year. Three times as many Democrats as Republicans have turned out.

Democrats see the increase as a sign of blue wave of opposition to President Donald Trump that they hope will defeat Gov. Larry Hogan and sweep the country in November.

“Democrats are energized and they’re ready to send a message,” said Fabion Seaton, a spokesman for the Maryland Democratic Party.

But analysts warn that predictions based on early voting patterns are fraught with risk. After all, if early voting reliably predicted final results, Anthony G. Brown would be governor, and Hillary Clinton would be president.

“It turned out early voting didn’t predict anything,” said Todd Eberly, a political scientist at St. Mary’s College.

Nevertheless, the numbers are striking. Through Wednesday, after seven days of early voting, turnout was up 55 percent over the last gubernatorial primary election in 2014 — 6 percent of registered Democrats and 4 percent of registered Republicans had gone to the polls.

Eberly said he doesn’t see signs of unusual enthusiasm in the numbers.

Early voting was pushed by Maryland Democrats and resisted by Republicans, who have been slow to embrace the practice. And three of Maryland’s larger jurisdictions, Baltimore and Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, are dominated by Democrats; races for local offices or the General Assembly are almost always decided by the primary.

This year brings a different dynamic than 2014. Gov. Martin O’Malley was leaving office, and both parties held competitive primaries for the open seat. Hogan faces no opposition this year.

This year, some early voters have said down-ballot races in Baltimore and Baltimore, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties are more compelling than the governor’s race.

In Baltimore, three candidates are vying to be the next top prosecutor and four of the city’s six sitting senators face primary challenges. Baltimore, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, the state’s three largest jurisdictions, are all choosing new county executives. In Baltimore County, there are competitive races in both parties.

“Primaries are different creatures from one another,” said Michael McDonald, a political scientist at the University of Florida who has been tracking trends in early voting for a decade. “It’s difficult to make comparisons.”

McDonald considers Maryland fairly new to early voting, having started with the 2010 election. Once a state adopts early voting, he said, the numbers tend to climb with each election before reaching a plateau.

The numbers indicate Maryland is still in a growth phase. In 2014, 141,590 people cast early ballots. That represented 19 percent of the total who voted. This year, as of Wednesday night, 172,743 had already voted.

In the presidential primary of 2012, 13 percent of those who voted cast ballots early. The number rose to 18 percent in 2016.

The increase in Maryland is consistent with national trends, said Wendy Underhill, director of elections at The National Conference of State Legislatures.

“Generally speaking, the number of people who choose to vote early has been increasing over the last 10 to 15 years,” she said. “I don’t think of this as having a Democratic or Republican flavor to it.”

Underhill said the parties have adjusted to early voting in the states that allow it, encouraging their supporters to take advantage of it so they can bank votes before Election Day.

“If someone’s voted early, then you don’t have to continue to campaign to them,” she said.

Candidates in Maryland’s primary are putting a heavy emphasis on the early vote.

Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, one of the frontrunners in the race for the Democratic nomination for governor, had seven visits to early voting centers Wednesday — taking him from Chevy Chase to Annapolis to Charles County. By the time early voting ends Thursday, he and running mate Elizabeth Embry will have visited about 50 of the sites, spokeswoman Madeline Russak said.

Russak said the Baker campaign is feeling good about the results it’s seen. She pointed to a big increase in early turnout in Prince George’s, where Baker hopes to post big numbers. The county is leading Maryland in early voting; it has three of the four sites in the state where more than 5,000 votes had been cast.

When Baker visits a voting site, Russak said, he usually takes local officeholders who have endorsed him with him. With polls showing many voters still undecided, she said, the endorsement of officials the voters know can make a difference.

The campaign of Ben Jealous, who is neck-and-neck with Baker in polls, is equally hopeful of getting a boost in the early voting.

Spokesman Kevin Harris said the campaign has seen a solid early voting turnout among voters who don’t usually turn out for primaries — a group Jealous believes will break for him.

Harris said the campaign has strategically held rallies with some of the national progressive leaders who have endorsed the campaign right outside early voting centers at times they’re open. Sen. Bernie Sanders joined Jealous at a rally Monday that drew 1,000 people steps away from the center in Silver Spring.

Eberly said there’s little evidence that early voting has increased overall turnout. It just tends to cannibalize Election Day voting.

Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College, said voter turnout might have decreased if voting hadn’t been made more convenient.

“The notion of making it easier for folks to vote is always a positive,” Kromer said.

mdresser@baltsun.com

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