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Politics

Only half of Maryland’s voters cast ballots in 2022, a historically low number for a midterm election

Caden Sutherland, 6, left, and his brother Finley, 3, wait as their parents, Kierran Sutherland, left and Erica Cress, right, cast ballots at Parkville High School in November 2022

Maryland Democrats will be sworn in to numerous state and local government positions in the new year on the heels of historic victories, including landslides for new statewide officials like Gov.-elect Wes Moore and dominant performances by county executives who faced tough competitors.

Moore, for one, secured both the most votes for any Maryland governor in history and the largest margin of victory — 32 percentage points — for a governor since 1986.

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Still, only half of all Maryland voters cast ballots — a historically low number for similar election years, according to the official numbers released by the state this month.

The 49% of voters who showed up to the polls in person or cast mail-in ballots marked one of the lowest turnouts for a midterm Maryland election in decades. The 47% turnout in 2014 was the only lower year in at least the past four decades.

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“There’s work for both parties to do,” said John Willis, a University of Baltimore professor and a former Maryland secretary of state.

Willis and others said a lack of races that featured competitive candidates, for either party, is often a depressing factor that stops more voters from showing up.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wes Moore, second from left, declares victory over Republican opponent Dan Cox. Moore celebrates with running mate Aruna Miller, left, Comptroller-elect Brooke Lierman and Attorney General-elect Anthony Brown at the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront on election night.

This year, all four statewide elections — governor, attorney general, comptroller and U.S. Senate — were seen for months as potential blowouts. Meanwhile, down-ballot candidates for the Maryland General Assembly, countywide positions or local councils often had easy paths to victory in solidly Democratic or Republican districts.

“There’s a lot of different places where the party faced little challenge,” Willis said. “That’s not necessarily unusual in Maryland, but it does explain the turnout.”

Compared with four years ago, when the middle of President Donald Trump’s term kept many voters motivated, about 200,000 fewer Democrats and 68,000 fewer Republicans voted in 2022, leading to a total statewide decline in turnout of 10%.

As is typically the case with midterm elections, Republicans turned out at higher rates than Democrats — 58% to 51% — while unaffiliated and other party voters showed up more infrequently and pulled down the statewide average.

But Republicans needed that 7% gap to have been much larger to have any chance of overcoming Democrats’ massive voter registration advantage in Maryland.

Mileah Kromer, an associate professor of political science at Goucher College, said Republicans needed a “massive turnout” not only to get closer in the statewide races but also to be more competitive in down-ballot races. Instead, far-right conservative Dan Cox’s spot at the top of the ticket appeared to be “a drag statewide.”

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“Republicans needed a surge in participation to win places like Howard County and to unseat an incumbent in Anne Arundel County,” said Kromer, referring to county executive races that Democrats won.

Smaller share of the electorate

Moore, a former nonprofit leader and author, ultimately defeated Cox by 32 percentage points, the largest margin since Democrat William Donald Schaefer won 82% of the gubernatorial vote in 1986.

A first-time candidate, Moore won a higher percentage of the vote in every county compared with the years that moderate Republican Gov. Larry Hogan won in 2014 and 2018.

By the time the final ballots were counted and state officials certified the results earlier this month, Moore had amassed more than twice the number of Cox’s votes and, with 18,300 more votes than Hogan in 2018, the most total votes of any governor in Maryland history.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Dan Cox speaks to supporters at an election night party at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Annapolis.

U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen, Maryland Attorney General-elect Anthony Brown and Comptroller-elect Brooke Lierman also gave Democrats landslides with margins of 32, 30 and 23 percentage points, respectively.

Their record-breaking vote totals combined with lower turnout, however, is a result of Maryland’s growing population and increases in voter registrations.

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Since Hogan’s upset win in 2014, more than 420,000 Marylanders have been added as eligible voters, and more than 170,000 were added since 2018, state records show.

So, while Moore’s nearly 1.3 million votes were more than ever, it was actually a slightly smaller percentage of the electorate than the one that voted for Hogan’s reelection four years ago.

Moore, who will be sworn in Jan. 18, has both highlighted his electoral success and reached out to those who didn’t pick him since he won last month.

“While we won this race by a historic margin, I recognize that some Marylanders did not vote for me. I am their Governor too,” he said in a statement earlier this month. “I will work, every day, to earn the support of every resident in our state and together, we will create a Maryland where no one is left behind.”

Where turnout changed the most

While turnout dropped in all but one county for Democrats compared with four years ago, the most significant falls came in the largest Democratic bases, the ones that supported the party’s statewide slate the most.

Baltimore, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties along with Baltimore City all saw 10% to 15% drops, representing almost all of the 200,000 fewer Democratic voters statewide.

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Baltimore City, now home to the fourth-largest number of Democratic voters in the state, had the worst turnout of any jurisdiction, a trend that is not unusual, according to historical figures. Just 4 of every 10 Democrats in the city voted.

Another source of strong support for the new administration, Prince George’s, had the sharpest overall decline compared with four years ago.

More than 67,000 fewer Democrats, or about 15 percentage points less, voted there, records show.

“The party organization should always be concerned about turnout,” Kromer said of Democrats’ dip compared with previous years.

But the goal is also to simply win the races, she said. And in a year when the winner at the top of the ticket did so well, she said, “it’s really difficult to look at the massive margin that Wes Moore won by and really levy a lot of criticism about the electoral performance.”

Voting in Prince George's County during the 2019 primary election.

The decline in Prince George’s County specifically may be due, Kromer said, to a surge there in 2018, when large numbers of federal government employees who live in the Washington, D.C., suburbs could have been more motivated to vote against Trump.

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Hogan also might have had elevated levels of popularity there, having grown up in the county and where his father was its county executive and representative in Congress.

Moore, indeed, made vast strides compared with Hogan’s Democratic opponents in 2014 and 2018 in places like Baltimore City and Prince George’s County. After Democrat Ben Jealous won 67% of the vote in Baltimore and 71% of the vote in Prince George’s four years ago, Moore won them by 88% and 89%, respectively.

Voting methods

Maryland voters also are changing the methods by which they vote, according to the latest official state data.

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With the increased popularity of mail-in voting since the pandemic began in 2020, only half of all voters who cast a ballot did so in person on Election Day this year. Slightly more than a quarter used mail-in ballots, while almost 1 in 5 turned out during the week of in-person early voting.

The 52% who showed up on Election Day was far lower than the 64% who did so in 2018 and the 77% in 2014, the previous two gubernatorial election years.

Early in-person voting also dipped, from 28% in 2018 to 19% this year, while mail-in voting shot up from being the choice of 5% of voters in 2018 to 27% this year.

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Both Republicans and Democrats turned out for early voting at the same rate, but the other two methods were starkly different after several years of Republican officials such as Trump making false claims about mail-in voting security.

Exactly a third of Democrats voted by mail, while slightly more, 44%, voted on Election Day. Just 15% of Republicans voted by mail and 64% voted on Nov. 8.

Republicans might not have won if they had increased their turnout overall, Kromer said, but not encouraging convenient methods like mail-in voting is not a key to success, especially in a state where they are already outnumbered by Democrats 2-1.

“It doesn’t make any strategic sense,” she said.


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