Early voting draws 219,000

Democratic leaders were so enthusiastic about the 219,000 Marylanders who went to the polls early that on Friday there was already talk of expanding the program for the next election.

Gov. Martin O'Malley, who was campaigning in Rockville, said that he'd consider adding more locations in Montgomery and Prince George's counties — where voters stood in long lines to cast ballots.

The program, which ended Thursday after six days, attracted 6.3 percent of eligible voters.

Democrats, who make up 56.4 percent of the Maryland electorate, proved the most enthusiastic participants, casting 63.9 percent of the early ballots, according to figures released Friday by the state Board of Elections. Republicans, who make up 26.7 percent of the electorate, cast 26.6 percent of the ballots.

Analysts warn against drawing conclusions from the turnout numbers. While officials released the party affiliations of early voters Friday, they won't reveal how they voted until ballots are counted on Election Day.

Nevertheless, Democrats felt good about the results.

State party chairwoman Susan Turnbull read participation numbers off her BlackBerry on Friday morning and declared herself "very pleased."

"These votes are in the bank," she said. "We don't have to concentrate on those people."

Early voting proved more popular in the general election than in the September primary, the state's first experience with the new program. Only 2.4 percent of registered voters cast ballots early in the primary, not enough to prevent overall turnout from falling to a 28-year low.

Since then, the two main political parties have focused on getting supporters to the polls, with a focus on residents of the battleground counties in the hotly contested gubernatorial race between O'Malley and his main challenger, Republican former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

The daily voting reports issued by the elections board allowed the campaigns to focus and refocus attention on underperforming areas. O'Malley said his team noticed lackluster returns in Baltimore County and focused efforts there toward the end.

"People are much more pumped up, much more focused," he said. Turnout in Baltimore County jumped from 3,907 on Saturday to 6,976 on Thursday.

Turnout also was high in the 1st Congressional District, where Democratic Rep. Frank Kratovil faces a strong challenge from Republican state Sen. Andy Harris. Nearly 42,000 voters, or 8.9 percent of the electorate, have cast ballots in that contest.

In the 1st District, it was the Republicans who led participation. GOP voters, who make up 41.7 percent of the electorate, cast 46.5 percent of the early ballots; Democrats, who make up 41.6 percent of the electorate, cast 43 percent of the ballots.

To pump up supporters, candidates and their supporters spent the last week camped out at early voting places. Ehrlich bounded out of his campaign SUV at the Bauer Drive Community Recreation Center in Rockville on Thursday for a brief stop.

He posed for photos and left instructions: "All right, you guys, get to work!"

Teamsters and O'Malley supporters swarmed the Bowie Library, one of five early voting centers in Prince George's County. Campaign volunteers walked up to people in cars, trying to secure promises to vote early.

When someone agreed, volunteers erupted into cheers, shouting, "We've got a voter! We've got a voter!"

At points during the day, the line of voters wrapped around the building. The county led the state with 38,500 early ballots cast. Rural Talbot County, with one-twentieth the number of registered voters as Prince George's, had the highest participation rate at 14.5 percent.

O'Malley said Friday that the General Assembly "might have to come back and look at" adding more places to vote in the more populous counties.

"There were not enough locations," O'Malley said at a luncheon with small-business owners in the Washington suburbs.

Each county has at least one early voting center; the larger ones have up to five. A spokesman for Rushern L. Baker, expected to become the next Prince George's County executive, said he'd also like more early polling places.

Extra locations would "help meet the demands of the state's most politically active communities," spokesman Scott Peterson said.

Ehrlich, who opposed early voting as governor, encouraged supporters to participate but has hinted that he would try to repeal the program if it failed to attract new voters.

This is also the first year that voters didn't need to provide a reason for requesting an absentee ballot — but the change didn't appear to improve participation. Voters requested 114,000 absentee ballots, down from 233,000 for the presidential election two years ago and 189,000 for the last gubernatorial election four years ago.

In participation that closely resembles that of early voting, Democrats have mailed in 65 percent of the total absentee ballots returned; Republicans have mailed 27 percent.

Baltimore Sun reporter Julie Bykowicz contributed to this article.

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