Voting is well underway in Maryland for this fall’s hybrid election, which gives voters the option of voting in person or casting a mail-in ballot.
In-person voting began Monday with about 80 centers across the state — at least one in each jurisdiction. The centers have proved popular thus far. Turnout each day has exceeded that of early voting days in the previous presidential election in 2016, in some cases growing as the week has progressed.
Early voting continues through Monday, and voters can also vote in person Tuesday on Election Day. Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily.
Here’s what we’ve learned so far from early voting in 2020:
Voters are seizing the opportunity
For months, state and local officials have been urging voters to make a plan to vote while the state is in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, preferably during off-peak hours at early voting centers or by using a mail-in ballot. It quickly became clear that mail-in ballots were going to be a popular option. More than 1.6 million mail-in ballots were requested by the Oct. 20 deadline to have them mailed to people’s homes, and nearly 1.2 million voters have returned them.
What remained to be seen was when the rest of Maryland’s participating electorate would vote: early or on Election Day?
Early results indicate voters are embracing the opportunity to vote early. Voters have turned out at a rate exceeding early voter turnout in 2016, even in jurisdictions where larger numbers of mail-in ballots were requested. A total of 14.3% of Maryland voters have cast ballots at early voting centers this fall as of halfway through the eight-day period. That’s compared with 16.7% of voters for the entire period in 2016.
The first day of early voting on Monday saw a record-breaking 152,031 ballots cast across the state, compared with 123,623 in 2016. The second day was almost as popular — 149,130 ballots were cast. In 2016, 123,314 people voted on Day 2. Those figures do not include provisional ballots cast during early voting, which will be considered and counted after Election Day.
On Wednesday, 150,353 people voted, compared with 80,294 in 2016. It’s important to note that Day 3 fell on a weekend in 2016, and past early voting weekend days have typically seen lower turnout.
On a rainy Day 4 on Thursday, 129,221 people voted early in Maryland. That surpassed the total of 74,068 for Day 4 in 2016, although that fell on a lighter-turnout weekend day.
Past trends may not hold
Election officials have asked 2020 general election voters to consider coming in at off-peak times to avoid lines.
While in past years, weekends have been the slowest days for early voting, state deputy elections administrator Nikki Charlson said she’s watching closely to see whether that will hold true this year.
In the past, Maryland has begun its early voting window earlier, allowing the weekend voting to fall two weekends before Election Day, rather than the weekend immediately before. In 2016, early voting began Thursday, Oct. 27, and Election Day itself was Tuesday, Nov. 8.
This year, because the election will be drawing close, election officials are bracing for more traffic over the weekend, potentially bucking trends that have held for several years in the state.
The state’s masking order is being enforced
On Monday, the first day of early voting, a Harford County man was arrested after allegedly refusing to leave a polling place where he wanted to vote without a mask. Charging documents state the man was offered the option of voting with a provisional ballot outside, which he refused. The man, who has since sued the Harford County Board of Elections, among others, argued he was disenfranchised and his constitutional rights were violated.
Maryland remains under an order requiring anyone over the age of 5 to wear face coverings while inside public spaces.
State election officials said their policy is to first offer a mask to voters without one. People who have a medical condition or disability that prevents them from wearing a mask do not have to use one. Those voters will be asked whether they are willing to vote with a provisional ballot outside the main voting room. If they are unwilling, election staff must allow them to vote inside the standard voting location.
Voters who do not have a medical reason for refusing to wear a mask are required to vote outside the primary voting room. The segregated voting site can be outdoors or in a different room in the voting center.
Health screenings have been minimal
Shortly before early voting began, Baltimore City election officials announced that they planned to take the temperatures of all in-person voters — using fevers to screen voters who may have been exposed to COVID-19.
But just days before polls opened their doors, that plan was scaled back. On the advice of state and city health officials, Baltimore Election Director Armstead Jones said temperatures would not be taken, out of concern for lengthening lines at the polls.
However, Jones said at the time that he expected health screening questions, such as whether a potential voter had been exposed to the virus, to be asked at the door.
In practice, few questions are being asked. Volunteers were told to ask voters at the door whether they feel OK. Those who are not should be encouraged to vote outside the voting center using a provisional ballot, if possible, Jones said.