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More than 2.2 million Marylanders have voted in advance, with long lines anticipated for Election Day

More than 2.2 million Marylanders voted ahead of Election Day for an unprecedented pre-Election Day turnout of 55%, and election officials, candidates and voters were bracing for a final day Tuesday of casting ballots.

Additional voting centers will open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., although far fewer than on a typical Election Day in hopes of preventing the spread of the coronavirus. Drop boxes will be open until 8 p.m. Tuesday to accept ballots, and mail-in ballots postmarked Tuesday by 8 p.m. will be counted.

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City Elections Director Armstead Jones was preparing for lines, particularly at Morgan State University and the Liberty Heights campus of Baltimore City Community College. Those sites have proved to be the busiest during the eight days of early voting that began Oct. 26, he said.

Jones said he has maximized the amount of equipment in each voting location for Tuesday to get people in and out as quickly as possible. And the city’s election judges have proven to be reliable thus far, with most showing up for work regularly during early voting and volunteering for extra shifts, he said.

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After the last voter in line at 8 p.m. anywhere in Maryland has cast a ballot, the focus will turn to returns in the races for president, U.S. House seats, statewide and local referendums and local races, including mayor of Baltimore, City Council president and council members.

Once the polls close, the State Board of Elections will release returns from early voting and from mail-in ballots counted up to Election Day. As in-person Election Day votes are tallied, those will be announced on election night.

By 4 p.m. Monday, the total early voting turnout of 939,345 surpassed the previous record of 874,753 set in 2016, also a presidential election year. Monday’s unofficial turnout figure for 2020 includes provisional ballots cast; historical figures do not.

Early voting got off to a busy start across the state, as people determined to cast ballots in person (or who hadn’t received a mail-in ballot) demonstrated their eagerness to vote as early as possible. More than 152,000 cast ballots the first day, many lining up hours before polls opened on a dark, misty morning.

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That enthusiasm continued throughout last week. Totals topped 129,000 daily for the first five days, dipping only over the weekend — not unusual compared with previous years.

The city’s early voting turnout, while lower than the rest of the state, was “pretty good” in Jones' estimation. Rain and cold weather seemed to keep voters away some days, he said.

Meanwhile, more than 1.3 million people have cast mail-in ballots in Maryland.

Polls conducted ahead of the election showed Democrats favored voting by mail this year in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and, as of Sunday, more than 900,000 Maryland Democrats had cast mail-in ballots. Another 400,663 Democrats voted in person by Sunday, meaning at least 58% of Democrats voted before Election Day. Maryland has a strong Democratic registration advantage.

Among Republicans, 312,770 voted in person by Sunday, while another 196,037 voted via mail-in ballot. Half of the state’s Republicans had cast ballots by Sunday.

State data shows local election boards have gotten a good jump on counting ballots before Election Day. Counting could begin as early as Oct. 1 by an emergency order passed by the State Board of Elections to accommodate the deluge of mail-in ballots this year. That made Maryland one of the first states in the country to start counting.

Of the more than 1.6 million mail-in ballots requested across the state, 78% were returned as of Monday. That matched the final return rate in 2016 and 2018, indicating the state can expect to see a higher final rate this year, said Nikki Charlson, the state’s deputy elections administrator.

“Those numbers are going to increase. The question is by how much,” she said.

Mailed ballots must be postmarked by 8 p.m. Tuesday and received by Nov. 13, Maryland’s vote certification deadline.

Statewide, Talbot County has recorded the highest return rate for mail-in ballots so far at 86%. Baltimore County has the lowest return rate at 65%. The majority of the county’s ballot drop boxes were not installed until the last week of October, potentially contributing to the lower rate.

Statewide, 80% of Democrats who requested ballots have returned them, while 74% of Republicans have sent them in.

State officials sought Monday to reassure numerous voters they’ve heard from who have tried to check on their ballot’s status online, only to find it has not yet been marked “accepted.” Ballots are first marked “received” when they are scanned upon arrival at a local board of elections office, Charlson said.

They won’t be marked “accepted” until after they’ve been counted, but voters should feel confident their vote will be counted if it has been labeled “received," Charlson said. Incoming ballots are checked immediately to make sure they have a voter’s signature; a missing signature is one of the few reasons a ballot won’t be counted.

John Willis, a former Maryland secretary of state, said Maryland voters had been trending toward using early voting before this year, but data demonstrates voters' habits have changed as a result of the pandemic.

Willis said he is somewhat concerned about the more than 369,000 mail-in ballots requested by voters across the state that have not yet been returned. While that figure falls within the standard percentage of ballots that are not cast, it raises questions about whether those voters will try to vote another way and when, he said.

As a result, Willis said he expects to see a larger than usual number of provisional ballots cast. Voters are asked to use a provisional ballot if there is a question about their eligibility, and they’re used by voters who requested a mail-in ballot but later opt to vote in person. Provisional ballots are counted, but only after officials verify that a voter has not voted more than once.

A large number of provisional ballots shouldn’t be a problem for Maryland, where the presidential vote is not expected to be close, Willis said. It’s swing states that will have a problem, he said.

“We’re not in that situation," he said, “but that does make an issue for Pennsylvania, Wisconsin or Michigan.”

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