Marylanders who don't want to wait for Election Day can cast early ballots at polling centers in every county and Baltimore city starting Thursday.
Campaigns from the governor's race to little-watched county courthouse contests are working to get their supporters to the polls during the eight days they can vote this month. While Maryland's majority Democrats are known for pushing early voting, Republicans are determined to catch up.
Loretta Shields, chair of the Howard County GOP, said volunteers would be out Thursday morning waving signs to remind people to vote early for gubernatorial nominee Larry Hogan and other Republican candidates. She said they'd be out again on the final two days, Oct. 29 and Oct. 30, as early voting winds down. Election Day is Nov. 4.
Getting her party's voters out early is a challenge, Shields said.
"Republicans are notorious not to early-vote. Everybody loves to vote on Election Day," she said.
Early voting centers — there are one to eight in every county in Maryland, depending on population — will be open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday through the following Thursday, Oct. 30. All registered voters can cast ballots at any early voting center in their home county. They will use the same touch-screen machines found in polls on Election Day.
Shields is sympathetic to Republicans' fondness for tradition, but as a party official in a county with a spirited county executive race, she'd like to bank as many Republican votes as she can before Nov. 4.
"Then I don't have to worry about getting those voters out," she said. "November 4th, it could snow, it could rain, you could have a terrible accident on the Beltway," Shields said.
Justin Schall, campaign manager for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Anthony G. Brown, said early voting is good for his party.
"Democrats have taken better advantage of early voting than Republicans have, at least in Maryland. That has been one of our keys to success in Maryland," Schall said. He said Brown is using a high tech voter-tracking system that will let the campaign know who has voted early so it can target potential Brown voters who have not cast a ballot yet.
"You are laser-focused on the people left," Schall said. "Early voting is still a relatively new thing in Maryland and the one most important thing to do is target folks who don't always vote."
Brown is also getting low-tech help from allies in organized labor. Pat Lippold, political director of Service Employees International Union Local 1199 in Baltimore, said her volunteer crews were using signboards and sound trucks to get out the word, especially in African-American and Latino neighborhoods in Baltimore and Prince George's County.
"We talk about how much easier it is to vote early because the lines aren't as long and people don't have to wait as long to vote," Lippold said.
Joe Cluster, executive director of the Maryland Republican Party, said the GOP would concentrate on getting the 200,000 Republicans who voted in the 2012 presidential election but not in the 2010 gubernatorial election to come out this year to elect Hogan as governor. He said getting those people to vote early was a big part of the Republican strategy.
"Every vote we can get from an unreliable voter helps us in the end," he said. "Early voting gives them options."
The Hogan campaign has sent emails urging supporters to "get ten friends and family members to the polls" as part of what it called Early Voting Thunderclap.
In Prince George's County, where Brown is counting on a strong African-American turnout, the Rev. Delman Coates of Mt. Ennon Baptist Church is working to make sure his 8,000 congregants get to the polls. For insurance reasons Mt. Ennon won't operate buses to early voting centers, as some Baltimore churches plan to do, but he's planning a big "souls to the polls" effort this Sunday.
"I'll be doing people-tree messages informing people about early voting," said Coates, who ran for lieutenant governor with Del. Heather R. Mizeur before she lost to Brown in the Democratic primary. "Folks are going to car-pool their fellow members to the polls this Sunday" as well as on Election Day, he said.
Todd Eberly, a political scientist at St. Mary's College, said the empirical evidence indicates early voting does not raise turnout.
"All early voting does is cannibalize people who clearly would have voted on Election Day," he said.
Eberly said that while conventional wisdom holds that early voting favors Democrats, on the theory the party's working-class voters have a harder time getting off work on Election Day, there is no evidence that one party benefits more.
"It looks like Republicans and Democrats both are doing quite well getting their folks out early," he said.
Early voting first took hold in the United States in the 1980s and has gradually expanded. The National Conference of State Legislatures says 33 states and the District of Columbia now allow early voting.
Maryland's early-voting program is more limited than many states'. The average early voting period is 19 days, more than twice as long as Maryland's. Most states allow early voting to continue closer to Election Day. Thirteen allow it as late as the day before the election.
President Barack Obama is among those taking advantage of early voting in his home state. On Monday, a day after he appeared in Upper Marlboro to urge thousands of Maryland Democrats to mobilize on behalf of Brown, Obama traveled to Chicago and cast his vote under Illinois' early-voting law.
This is the first general election since the General Assembly voted last year to expand the number of early-voting days and centers. Marylanders first approved early voting in a referendum in 2008. Maryland held its first early voting in the 2010 election. That year, early voting during the primary accounted for just under 10 percent of turnout. In the general election the proportion grew to almost 12 percent, or 219,624 voters.
Participation was higher in the 2012 presidential election, in which 430,547 cast their votes early, amounting to almost 16 percent of votes counted, even though Hurricane Sandy shut down the polls for two days. Gov. Martin O'Malley added a day and extended hours to make up for the interruption.
Republican chief Cluster said that while he has some misgivings about the cost of early voting, he personally is a convert.
"On Election Day, I don't have time to vote," he said.
Where to vote early
For information on early voting centers in Maryland's 23 counties and Baltimore, go to elections.maryland.gov/voting/early_voting.html or call the Maryland State Board of Elections at (800) 222-8683.