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First day of early voting in Maryland breaks record: Enthusiasm, determination drive voters to the polls

Baltimore Sun's politics reporter Emily Opilo talks about early voting in Maryland and what you need to know before proceeding to local polling places.

Some said being there made them feel like they were part of the election process. Others worried their vote wouldn’t be counted if they mailed it in. Whatever the reason, tens of thousands of Marylanders flocked to the polls for the first day of early voting Monday, braving soggy weather and long lines.

The unofficial voter turnout of more than 161,000 was the highest in a single day of early voting in state history, according to the Maryland State Board of Elections. The previous high of 143,494 was set on the final day of early voting in 2016. With the first-day early voting turnout, plus the mail-in ballots cast so far, 1.1 million Marylanders have voted.

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Angela White, 48, and her son, Lamon White, 19, came to the Randallstown Community Center after she finished her workday at home. The Randallstown residents tried to request mail-in ballots, she said, and thought they had done so successfully. But after checking the state elections board website for their ballots’ status, there was no record of their requests. They decided the “hassle” of pursuing that method wasn’t worth it, opting to stock up on masks and hand sanitizer to vote in person.

Angela White said it’s important to vote because “so many people lost their lives to give us this right.”

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“If you don’t exercise your right to vote, who will?” asked Lamon White, who was voting for the first time.

For months, Maryland officials have encouraged voters to take advantage of mail-in ballots to avoid crowding at voting centers amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Many heeded that call, and as of Monday, nearly 1.7 million mail-in ballot requests had been logged. Of those, 56% had been returned, either by mail or at drop boxes that have been available around the state for a month.

Still, people proved Monday that there’s tremendous interest in voting in person, with early risers braving a misty morning to line up well ahead of the 7 a.m. start.

Armon Wilson was first in line of at least 200 people at Wilde Lake High School in Columbia. The 19-year-old woke up at 4 a.m. and walked an hour in sprinkling rain to get in line at 5:15 a.m.

“I’m here to show older people: younger people — we vote,” Wilson said. “We’ve got to back up talk with action.”

The ballot includes the race between Republican President Donald Trump and Democratic former Vice President Joe Biden, congressional seats and two questions asking voters statewide about amending Maryland’s constitution. Locally, many are seeing additional ballot questions, while Baltimore City voters are selecting a new mayor, City Council president and council members.

It’s the first time early voting has been offered in 2020 and during the coronavirus pandemic. Election officials opted against allowing voters to cast ballots early during the June primary.

About 80 voting centers are open across the state from Monday through Nov. 2, more than in a typical year, in hopes of spacing out voters and avoiding the spread of the virus.

Wendy Blackston never has voted early nor has she ever waited to vote in a line as long as the one at Wilde Lake. With a turquoise coffee mug in hand and mini chair tucked under her arm, Blackston didn’t mind because this year, she said, democracy was on the ballot.

“I planned this vote, made sure it counted,” Blackston, 55, said. “I feel like our country is going in the wrong direction. Hopefully, we can establish civility and governance and bring some respect to the political process.”

Elections officials implemented numerous COVID-19 safety measures, including socially distanced outdoor lines and frequent sanitizing of voting equipment and surfaces.

Lines shortened during the day at some voting sites, only to lengthen again in the evening. At 4 p.m., none of Howard County’s five locations had more than 10 people in line. Within two hours, though, about 100 voters wrapped in a line around Reservoir High School in Fulton.

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Shanna Evering, 41, of Fulton, picked early voting because she was “a little” anxious about the other two options.

“The mail voting made me feel a little reluctant,” she said. “I wanted to vote in person, but I was also nervous about what the conditions could look like on Election Day. I just wanted to make sure I was prepared and got it done today.”

In another effort to minimize the spread of the coronavirus, election officials across the state established larger venues as voting centers, including several stadiums such as Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore.

At the ballpark Monday morning, the line of voters stretched the length of the historic, brick warehouse, which was bathed in red, white and blue lights for the occasion.

Selena Washington, 55, was fifth in the queue when the voting center inside Dempsey’s Brew Pub and Restaurant opened. Washington said she woke up early on her day off to catch a cab to the stadium.

“I didn’t want to procrastinate,” she said, “because I didn’t want to stand in a four-hour line.”

All voting centers across the state opened on time Monday, state election officials said. Few problems were reported at individual locations.

In Baltimore, officials dealt with a mistake at a center at Morgan State University, where a voter received a partially completed ballot instead of a blank one. Myelin Klobert, a Green Party voter from Waltherson in Northeast Baltimore, told The Baltimore Sun the ballot had exclusively Democrats already selected for president, representative in Congress, mayor and a City Council member.

Klobert flagged an election judge and was given a clean ballot. The staff was apologetic, but Klobert said he voted for fewer Democrats as a result of the error.

“Of all of the stupid things you can do, this ranks about the stupidest,” Klobert said.

Elections officials said a “spoiled” ballot — one another voter had partially filled out, but not cast — was mistakenly given to a voter at Morgan State. Election judge Joshua Ramos said a worker pulled the spoiled ballot from a cabinet containing blank ballots.

Baltimore Election Director Armstead Jones said spoiled ballots are supposed to be kept in a separate bin and he would instruct judges at the site to do so.

Historically, the first day of early voting has been one of the most popular among voters in Maryland, as has the final day.

In Pasadena, hundreds of voters lined up Monday outside Northeast High School ahead of the polls opening, some dozing in their vehicles before joining the line.

Michael Phillips, 73, a retiree from Sunset Beach, arrived around 7:15 a.m. and waited about half an hour to vote. Wearing a white baseball cap that read “Make America great again," Phillips said he came out early “to vote for my man, Trump," because he wasn’t interested in a presidential candidate who would raise his taxes.

More than 100 people were in line around 7 a.m. at the Westminster Senior Center, standing apart to maintain social distancing.

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Diana Collins of Hampstead said she and her husband arrived around 7:30 a.m. and were finished within 45 minutes. Collins said she just wanted to be there in person to vote.

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“I just felt more control,” she said.

Baltimore Sun reporters Christine Condon and McKenna Oxenden and Baltimore Sun Media reporters Matt Button, Ana Faguy, Jacob Calvin Meyer, Olivia Sanchez and Pat Stoetzer contributed to this article.

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