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Hundreds of thousands turn out for Election Day in Maryland to end weeks of voting for U.S. president, Baltimore mayor

Tuesday’s Election Day turnout in Maryland won’t set records. In fact, it barely scratched at totals set in years past. But it still proved voters are capable of turning trends on their head.

By the end of the day, a little over 475,000 people cast ballots for races such as U.S. president and Baltimore’s citywide leaders. That’s a far cry from the nearly 1.7 million who voted in person on Election Day 2016 during another contentious presidential campaign.

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Instead, still in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, voters opted to vote early. More than 2.2 million of Maryland’s 4 million voters cast ballots ahead of Election Day, either by mail, drop box or during an eight-day early voting period that ended Monday.

The final result is likely to rival 2016′s overall turnout. But the 2020 election is almost incomparable to any one the state’s past, due to the global health crisis.

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“We’re not used to having 1.6 million people vote by mail,” said Nikki Charlson, the state’s deputy election administrator. “In terms of comparing it to prior elections, it’s just too different of an election to do so.”

Tuesday’s election was the culmination of a tumultuous year for state election officials. When the pandemic struck, Maryland was in the middle of a special election to replace the late Democratic U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings of Baltimore. State officials opted to shift to almost entirely mail-in voting for that race, decided by a special election in April.

Ballots were then mailed to all voters across the state ahead of the June primary, the state’s first full-scale test of voting by mail. When the primary suffered from problems with ballot printing and late delivery of ballots to some voters, however, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan termed it an “unmitigated disaster” and ordered a more traditional election in the fall.

While creating more options for in-person voting for the fall, officials mounted a monthslong campaign to again encourage voters to cast ballots by mail in hopes of keeping crowds at polls to a minimum because of the continuing COVID-19 risk. Ballot applications were mailed to every eligible voter. Nearly 1.7 million responded, requesting ballots delivered via mail, email and even fax.

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However, many voters preferred to cast ballots in person. Early voting proved more popular than ever, attracting more than 152,000 voters on the first day. Many lined up before dawn on Oct. 26, well ahead of polls opening, enthusiastic for the prospect of voting in person during a presidential year. Subsequent days proved almost as busy. More than 129,000 voted on each of the first five days of early voting.

That didn’t prevent lines from forming Tuesday at voting centers. State election officials reported lengthy lines across the state when polls opened. As usual, lines abated slightly in the afternoon, then picked up again in the evening.

“Substantial lines” with waiting times of more than an hour were reported Tuesday evening, for instance, at several Baltimore City locations, including Oriole Park at Camden Yards, the Southeast Anchor Library of the Enoch Pratt Free Library system, and Edmondson Westside High School.

Some locations, such as Parkville High School in Baltimore County, saw lengthy lines of more than 3 hours for parts of the day. The county’s voters had the lowest mail-in ballot return rate of the state’s 24 jurisdictions.

The release of returns statewide was delayed for hours Tuesday night due to lengthy lines that remained after polls closed at 8 p.m. The last voters at Patuxent High School in Calvert County did not make it inside to vote until 9:30 p.m.

Halethorpe resident Moice Harkless voted at Lansdowne Elementary School in Baltimore County, saying it was hard for her to trust mail-in voting this year after reports of U.S. Postal Service delivery delays. The 43-year-old Democrat said it was important to vote for former Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris.

“If he passes away, we’ll have our first Black, female president,” Harkless said.

Lines are not uncommon in a presidential election year, but Maryland election officials hoped to avoid a repeat of lengthy wait times seen during in-person voting during the primary. Then, there was no early voting and the number of in-person locations was severely curtailed in an effort to minimize the spread of the coronavirus. Many people waited multiple hours to vote.

This fall, state officials instead opened about 300 in-person voting centers on Election Day in place of Maryland’s standard 1,600 neighborhood polling places. The voting centers were available to any voter registered in that jurisdiction.

Outside the Southeast Anchor Library near the Highlandtown neighborhood of Baltimore around 5 p.m., Robert Miller, 76, waited in a more than hourlong line that stretched far past the library on South Conkling Street. He brought a chair for the occasion.

Miller said he normally votes at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, but his precinct polling place wasn’t open Tuesday. Miller attributed the lengthy line at the library to fewer places to vote, but he noted the line had moved pretty steadily during the first 30 minutes he’d waited.

Miller said he was voting for President Donald Trump largely because of his economic accomplishments, saying “the economy was going well” and the Republican president is “bringing back jobs” to the country.

Election Day 2020 attracted first-time voters. Marley Copes, a 19-year-old Frostburg State University student who is registered as an unaffiliated voter, voted Tuesday for Biden at the Jarrettsville Fire Hall in Harford County.

“It is more, for me, about getting Trump out than getting [Biden] in,” she said.

Taylor Schneckenburger, 18, of Halethorpe, wanted her first time voting to be in person due to what she called “terrible” leadership at the Postal Service. She said she wasn’t writing off risks from the virus, but felt that if she got infected, the disease wouldn’t be “as detrimental” for her as an older voter.

Schneckenburger isn’t affiliated with any of the political parties, and she called the two-party system and its presidential candidates “concerning.” She nonetheless voted for Biden, calling him “the lesser of two evils."

”I don’t like him. I don’t like the fact that I voted for him. But I’d rather have him — as someone with experience and knowledge of how government works — than someone who has not handled a pandemic at all well," she said.

Voting centers accepted people in line as of 8 p.m. Tuesday. Similarly, any voter in line to deposit a ballot in a drop box at 8 p.m. was to be allowed to do so.

Baltimore Sun reporters Phil Davis and Wilborn P. Nobles III and Baltimore Sun Media Group reporters Chase Cook, Randy McRoberts and James Whitlow contributed to this article.

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