Democratic voters hit the polls early

Democrats are taking advantage of early voting in greater proportion than Republicans, the state elections board reports, suggesting that the party in power is turning out its base more effectively.

In the first three days of early voting, registered Democrats, who make up 56 percent of the Maryland electorate, cast 63 percent of the ballots, according to elections board. Republicans, who make up 26 percent of the electorate, cast 27 percent of the ballots.

Some good news for the GOP: Republican voters are outpacing Democrats in the 1st Congressional District, where state Sen. Andy Harris is trying to unseat Rep. Frank Kratovil in the Maryland's most competitive House race this year.

Participation in early voting remained low, though, with just 2.75 percent of the electorate having cast ballots through Monday, the board reported.

Analysts warned against drawing conclusions from the party affiliations of early voters. Officials are releasing participation numbers after each day of early voting, but they are not releasing vote tallies.

"We still have secret ballots," added Todd Eberly, the acting director of the Center for the Study of Democracy at St. Mary's College of Maryland.

It's also difficult to know whether Democrats will continue to vote in greater proportions than Republicans on Nov. 2. Statistics from the primary election in September suggest that Maryland Republicans prefer to vote on Election Day. Because this is the state's first general election with early voting, there are no historic data on which to base predictions.

Still, a Sun poll this week indicated that most voters in the election between Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley and Republican former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. are planning to cast their ballots along party lines.

"I tend to look at these numbers as confirming what we're seeing in the polling," said Michael McDonald, a professor of government and politics at George Mason University who tracks early voting nationally. "It suggests, at least to me, that Ehrlich has a lot of ground to catch up."

O'Malley led Ehrlich in the Sun Poll of likely voters this month by 14 percentage points. Two other polls released this week also show double-digit leads for O'Malley.

Elsewhere, McDonald said, early voting has tracked closely with expected voter enthusiasm. In Florida, where Tea Party-backed candidates Rick Scott and Marco Rubio are leading races for governor and U.S. Senate, Republicans have cast more than half of the early ballots.

In Colorado, where Tea Party-backed challenger Ken Buck is edging Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet, Republicans also have participated in early voting disproportionately.

"These numbers, when you integrate them with the polling, do tell a story," McDonald said. "They are a part of the narrative of the election."

In the 1st District, where the Sun Poll showed Harris and Kratovil dead even in their rematch, 4 percent of voters have cast ballots early — the highest turnout among the state's eight congressional districts by far. Republicans and Democrats each make up 42 percent of district electorate, but Republicans had cast 46 percent of the ballots through Monday. Democrats had cast 43 percent.

The O'Malley and Ehrlich campaigns have put on a massive push focused on early voting, which continues through Thursday. O'Malley brought in former President Bill Clinton the day before the polls opened last week to kick off a statewide tour to get out the vote. Ehrlich held a slew of weekend voter turnout events capped with a rally featuring former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

And Maryland's Democratic and Republican parties poured millions into sophisticated early voting plans this year. Both sides are staffing call centers with volunteers who use computerized auto-dialing systems to let voters know they can cast their ballots now.

On Monday evening workers at a Democratic call center in Timonium said they'd reached out to roughly 14,000 Baltimore County voters by 7:20 p.m. The office is dedicated to calling Baltimore County voters all day, every day.

It is one of 30 Democratic centers statewide, enabling workers to contact up to 60,000 voters a day, according to Travis Tazelaar, executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party.

About 20 minutes away, in Randallstown, GOP callers contacted 6,000 Baltimore County voters. It is one of seven Republican "Victory Centers" statewide; the party also is running smaller operations in Baltimore and each of Maryland's 23 counties.

"We are exceeding all of our goals for voter contact," said state GOP spokesman Ryan Mahoney.

Mahoney said Republicans remain skeptical of early voting. Ehrlich vetoed the program when he was governor.

"I think a lot of it was justifiable with the concerns about early voting," he said. "The costs. The opportunities for fraud. I think that mindset still lingers with a lot of the base."

In the September primary, Democrats voted early in greater proportion than Republicans, but Republicans voted on Election Day in greater proportion.

Still, Eberly said, the statewide numbers should concern Ehrlich.

"If you are Bob Ehrlich, you would like to point to some momentum," he said. "You would like to see early voting figures better than what you are seeing."

Ehrlich said early voting figures might provide campaigns "a little indication of how you are doing … but even that is questionable."

The figures so far show high turnout in areas the gubernatorial campaigns have been targeting all fall: In heavily Democratic Prince George's County nearly 16,000 voted in the first three days of the program. Vote totals also broke 10,000 in the battleground counties of Baltimore and Montgomery.

Participation has also been high in Anne Arundel County, where clashing gaming interests have spent nearly $6 million to stoke interest in a ballot question that will determine the future location of the state's largest casino.

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