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Early voting increases and catches on with Republicans

Campaigns love early voters as they head into Election Day. They're like money in the bank. They can't forget to vote Tuesday. They won't get the flu or be held up at work. And they free up volunteers to get other voters to the polls.

This year there are a lot more of them. Early voting in Maryland increased by 40 percent in 2014 compared with the last year the state elected a governor and Republicans have almost caught up to Democrats in their willingness to get a jump on Election Day, figures released by the State Board of Elections show.

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Just over 307,000 Marylanders voted during the eight days of early voting that ended Thursday. That compares with just under 220,000 in 2010, when the polls were open for six days before Election Day. That means it's likely that one in six Marylanders who cast ballots for governor this year will vote early, compared with one in eight four years ago.

Maryland Republicans fought the concept of voting during the last decade and took to it more slowly than Democrats when it was introduced in 2010. That year, 7.17 percent of eligible Democrats voted early compared with 6.32 percent of Republicans.

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This year, the GOP nearly caught up in the proportion of its voters who cast votes early. The Democrats edged them by 9.29 percent to 9.17 percent. (These numbers can be roughly doubled in terms of impact on this election since less than 50 percent of eligible voters typically turn out in gubernatorial years.)

The Democrats still dominate in the number of early voters. Democrats cast 189,175 early votes compared with 87,035 Republicans. Democrats represent 62 percent of the early voters, Republicans 28 percent and the unaffiliated and other party voters at 10 percent.

If the electorate on Tuesday mirrors the early voting numbers, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Anthony G. Brown could go to bed relatively early on election night as governor-elect. The Baltimore Sun poll that showed Brown with a 7-point lead this month was based on an estimate of 57 percent Democrats, 28 percent Republicans and 15 percent others. If the turnout of independent voters continues to lag on Election Day, it's good news for Brown because that poll showed Hogan with a significant lead among those voters. Only 4.3 percent of independent voters came out early.

Boosting Republican hopes is a sense that many of their voters are traditionalists who prefer to vote on Election Day. Brown's advantage could also evaporate if a significant percentage of the Democrats who turned out voted for Hogan. Brown's support in his own party is significantly less intense than his opponent's backing from GOP voters, the poll showed.

County-by-county totals give both parties things to brag about and things to raise concerns.

Brown's get-out-the-vote early can point to success in raising Democratic early voting numbers from 2010 levels in their three strongest jurisdictions -- Montgomery County, Prince George's County and Baltimore City. Almost 7,000 more Democrats voted early in Brown's Prince George's home than four years ago. Democrats also piled up big advantages in the two other counties where they have their best chance of winning: Charles, where they had almost a 3-1 advantage, and Howard, where it was 2-1.

Republicans can take comfort in strong showings in Harford County and Anne Arundel County, where they turned out in some of the highest percentages in the state. In both of those counties, they turned out higher in percentage terms than Democrats.

Baltimore County is a political anomaly. The county's early turnout was well above the statewide average for both parties, but 2 1/2 Democrats turned out for every Republican. That normally would signal a strong Democratic vote, but Hogan has outpolled Brown in the county by large margins. One thing cheering the Brown camp: Their strongest early voting numbers came from the heavily African-American Randallstown area. Good news for Hogan: Early voting for county Republicans jumped from 5.63 percent of eligibles in 2010 to 10.15 this year.

Montgomery County's early voting raises red flags for both sides. While both parties improved on their 2010 showings, the county continues to lag well behind the statewide average of 8.31 percent. While 6.86 percent of Montgomery Democrats voted early, 5.1 percent of Republicans did. Any lag in Montgomery turnout would be a huge concern for Brown, who needs big numbers there. It's also a problem for Hogan because even though Democrats have a 3-1 registration advantage, Montgomery has the third largest number of Republicans in the state.

Rural Maryland presents an anomaly. It includes some counties with the highest early voting rates in the state and the lowest. The Eastern Shore has taken to early voting with gusto, led by Talbot County Republicans with an eye-popping 22.76 turning out. Western Maryland has been more resistant, with Allegany and Washington county voters of both parties coming in at under 5 percent.

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