Even before Maryland's week-long period of early voting concludes Thursday night, voter turnout records have been set. At the current pace, it's expected that more than 800,000 Maryland voters will have cast their ballots at one of the state's 69 early voting centers this year. If turnout is similar to 2012, that will represent about one-third of all Maryland's votes cast, even more if the state's 200,000 outstanding absentees are included.
By any measure, that makes this state's six-year experience with early voting an extraordinary success in at least one regard — it has made it easier to vote. The impact on turnout in 2016? That won't be known until after Election Day, of course, but on the national level, research has suggested it may improve turnout by 2 percent to 4 percent.
There are two often heard criticisms of early voting — that it causes voters to make decisions too early and that it enables fraud. Given that in-person voter fraud is such a rarity in Maryland and elsewhere, restricting early voting because of it is a bit like saying we ought to build fences to keep unicorns off the highways. But the recent disclosure by FBI Director James Comey to Congress that his agents are currently examining email potentially relevant to the agency's investigation of Hillary Clinton's use of a private server when she was secretary of state certainly highlights the informed-electorate question.
But maybe not by much. It's unlikely voters will be any better informed about the email by the time Election Day rolls around. And given the state of misinformation coming from the various campaigns and supporters, and especially on social media, the broader claim that the electorate will be better informed tomorrow, the next day or next week is certainly quaint but probably naive.
Here's the real impact. Waiting lines are shorter, at least generally. While early voting center lines may be their longest on Thursday (traditionally the busiest early voting day), they have not been nearly as bad as in years past. And better yet, a bigger turnout for early voting means that Maryland's 1,900 or so polling places will be that much less inundated this Tuesday.
That was one of the conclusions, incidentally, of a thoughtful 2014 report on early voting by the University of Baltimore's Schaefer Center for Public Policy, which found people who voted early were generally happy with the experience. The study also caused some changes — including increasing the number of voting centers statewide from 47 to 69.
Such a study group ought to be convened again. Maryland might consider, for example, conducting its week-long early voting period Sunday-to-Sunday prior to an election rather than Thursday-to-Thursday. The reason it doesn't today is simply a matter of technology and cost — updating Election Day polling books to reflect early voting takes time. Invest $2 million or more to network the state's polling places, and the labor-intensive updates would no longer be a stumbling block.
There are other matters that ought to be studied as well — universal voter registration (that is, requiring a qualified person to opt-out rather than opt-in), expanding the pool of election judges and allowing Marylanders to take ballot selfies. That last one may seem obscure, but in a world of Twitter and Facebook, it seems reasonable to allow people to express their enthusiasm for voting as long as it doesn't compromise the privacy of others.
One more observation about early voting: The high turnout this week could mean that Maryland polling places will be packed on Nov. 8. In 2012, 430,573 people took advantage of early voting in the general election, and in 2014, it was 307,646. That this year's total hit 609,000 by Tuesday could be an indicator of turnout as much as an expression of preference for early voting — or of a worry about voter suppression efforts on Election Day.
Conventional wisdom is that early voting favors the elderly and the partisan and that Democrats in Maryland have endorsed it simply because they have effective get-out-the-vote operations that benefit from the bigger window of opportunity. All of that may be true, but getting more people to vote — whether they prefer Ms. Clinton or Donald Trump or anyone else — ought to be a high priority for any democracy. Even if the Maryland tally reaches or exceeds 2012's 2.7 million, it will still far, far short of the 3.9 million registered voters. As popular as early voting has become, we should still work to make it better.