Early voters trickled into Maryland polling places Thursday for the first of seven days of early voting in this year’s primary election.
Statewide, competitive races for governor, attorney general and comptroller headline the ballots for most voters. None of the three incumbents is running for reelection and multiple Democrats and Republicans are vying to replace them.
Voters in some areas also began choosing among multiple candidates to nominate for the General Assembly and such local offices as county executive, county council and state’s attorney.
Victor Robbins, voting center manager at the Silver Spring Civic Center, reported seeing 47 voters by about 10 a.m., far below the normal 200 to 300 voters.
“This is very unusual,” said Robbins, who has managed the center since 2018 and others since 2004.
He attributed the decline to increases in mail-in voting, noting that thousands of voters already had requested and returned them. Before 2020, when the pandemic spurred an explosion in mail-in voting, about 3,000 people would show up the first day of early voting at his location, which he said has been the state’s busiest.
But even in 2020, a presidential election year, the early morning line outside the door was 150 people long. Thursday there were four voters at 7 a.m.
“Hopefully this is the new normal where I think a lot of people are choosing how they want to vote,” Robbins said.
The state reported 14,208 votes cast statewide by 3:30 p.m. In 2020, a presidential election year during the pandemic, 152,000 early voting ballots were cast the first day.
The early voting numbers also don’t include mail-in ballots placed in drop boxes at the voting centers during early voting — ballots like the one Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Perez dropped off at the Silver Spring location Thursday morning.
Campaign signs, candidates and volunteers far outnumbered the voters as Perez dropped his ballot and expressed optimism about his chances in the party’s nine-person race.
“There’s undeniably a lot of undecided voters, and the polling shows it’s a dead heat,” said Perez, who said he’s “peaking at the right time.”
Baltimore’s Public Safety Training Center voting site saw 111 voters as of 10:30 a.m. Outside the center, City Del. Marlon Amprey was campaigning, but not voting. Amprey said he’s waiting until the July 19 primary so his 2-year-old daughter can watch him vote together with his wife.
Former Baltimore City Councilwoman Rochelle Rikki Spector also was at the center, seeking support for Baltimore state’s attorney candidate Thiru Vignarajah and for getting a petition on the November ballot to lower city property taxes.
She stressed the importance of exercising the right to vote.
“Everybody should show up,” Spector said.
Miles to the northeast in Bel Air, the early voting crowd was light at the McFaul Activity Center.
Bel Air’s Michael Thomson typically votes on Election Day, but decided to go early this time.
”We travel a lot so we wanted to make sure we got our vote in as soon as we could,” Thomson said. “Fortunately the crowds weren’t too bad this morning so the process went great.”
Bill Reichmann from Street used the drop box at the McFaul Center.
”I thought it was very easy,” he said. “The hardest part was deciding who to vote for.”
In Towson, retired residents Bobby Shaw, 65, and his wife, Dellyse, 72, voted Thursday to avoid crowds and lines. By 11 a.m., only 86 voters had passed through the polls at the George W. Carver Center for Art and Technology.
”It was just easier for us to come in on an off day like this,” Shaw said. “Why wait?”
Helen Hiser, 62, changed her party affiliation from Independent to Democrat to vote this primary season and did so in person out of admiration for poll workers.
”After watching the January 6th hearings,” she said, “I have a whole different level of respect for poll workers.”
David Read, 68, voted in person Thursday because of the “sense of community” associated with showing up.
”I turned 18 in 1972, which was the first year that 18-year-olds could vote,” he said outside the Towson high school. “We felt empowered by that, so I’ve tried to vote every time since then.”
Read made sure to tell his 16-year-old daughter he was headed to the polls, hoping she understands the value of casting a ballot.
”I will emphasize to her that all politics are local,” he said.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Kelly Schulz, in her fourth visit to an early voting spot Thursday, spoke to voters at the Activity Center at Bohrer Park in Gaithersburg around 1 p.m.
Wearing a campaign T-shirt, she said she was feeling positive about her four-way primary and said she believes the large pool of undecided GOP voters have started making their decisions.
“They want to elect somebody that has a good deal of success,” said Schulz, a former lawmaker and cabinet secretary for Gov. Larry Hogan. “They want somebody that has been in a position to be able to make change for Maryland.”
The Gaithersburg location had seen 201 voters by 5 p.m., and more had placed mail-in ballots in its drop box, said election chief Sofia Vega.
“This is definitely the slowest year I’ve seen so far for the start of it,” said Vega, who’s had the same role since 2018.
By 1:50 p.m., 288 voters had passed through the League for People with Disabilities site in Baltimore, including Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wes Moore and his wife, Dawn. With their kids Mia, 11, and Jamie, 8, on their laps, the couple cast their votes.
”We thought it was important as a family to be able to set an example that we want people to not just come out and vote, but make sure that they’re voting in a way that makes the most sense for them and their family,” Moore said.
Todd Eberly, professor of political science at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, said he anticipated low turnout based on the number of undecided voters in the governor’s race and recent polls.
“The percentage of undecided [voters] right up until the final days of the election, to me, at least in Maryland, seems unprecedented,” Eberly said.
He said the percentage of Marylanders choosing early voting has increased every year, but the rise in mail-in voting could change that.
“[It] could be folks were so comfortable with voting by mail during COVID that perhaps … there’s been a larger than usual request of mail-in ballots,” Eberly said.
The in-person voting that kicked off Thursday will run 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily — including Saturday and Sunday — through July 14.
Maryland Policy & Politics
Voters can visit any early voting center in their county. Baltimore residents can choose among seven early voting centers in the city, and Baltimore County residents have 11 locations to choose from. A full list of early voting centers is available at elections.maryland.gov/voting.
While Thursday marked the start of in-person voting this year, voting has been underway for weeks.
The state mailed or emailed ballots to nearly 460,000 voters who requested them in the last month, according to data from the State Board of Elections as of July 5. Of those, the board already had received ballots from at least 18,850 Democrats and 5,800 Republicans.
Voters have until July 12 to request a ballot by mail. Those who choose early in-person voting cannot vote by mail or in-person on July 19.
In Maryland’s closed primary system, voters can only cast a ballot for the party in which they’re registered. Roughly 2.2 million Democrats and 1 million Republicans are registered to vote in Maryland.
About 29% of registered Democrats and 22% of Republicans voted in 2018, the last gubernatorial primary, when Hogan ran for reelection. Maryland governors are limited to two four-year terms.
Baltimore Sun Media journalist Matt Button and Baltimore Sun reporter Emily Opilo contributed to this article.
This story has been updated to correct the name of the Towson voting site. It is the George W. Carver Center for Art and Technology. The Sun regrets the error.