What to watch

Your Guide To Today's Election

Maryland Votes 2006

November 07, 2006

Early returns could provide solid indications of whether the night will belong to the Republicans or the Democrats. Updated returns will be available on baltimoresun.com throughout the night. Here are some signs to watch for:

IN MARYLAND

Baltimore County

With the third most registered voters in the state, a swing of a few percentage points in Baltimore County could make all the difference in this election. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. won by 24 percentage points there in 2002, earning almost his entire margin of victory in his home county. If Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley can cut that margin to about 10 points, Ehrlich could be in trouble.

Black turnout

African-Americans have traditionally been the bedrock of Democrats' base in Maryland, and polls show that blacks are still overwhelmingly supportive of the party's nominees, despite Republicans' nomination of Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, an African-American, for U.S. Senate.

The question, though, is how many will turn out. Black voters are concentrated in Prince George's County and Baltimore. About 160,000 voters in Baltimore and 197,000 in Prince George's cast ballots for governor in 2002. If turnout falls in those jurisdictions, it could spell doom for O'Malley and Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, the Democrats' nominee for Senate.

Charles County

Ehrlich won this Southern Maryland jurisdiction by about 4,000 votes in 2002, but since then, voter registration has increased by nearly 25 percent, with most of the rise coming from Demo-crats. Population growth there has been fueled by the spread of the Washington suburbs, and a good showing by O'Malley and Cardin there could indicate that the influence of that relatively liberal region is spreading into one-time conservative strongholds.

Howard County

Howard went for Sen. John Kerry in his 2004 presidential challenge to President Bush, but Ehrlich won the county two years earlier by 9 percentage points. This year, it has emerged as a battleground with high-profile races for county executive and state Senate. If Ehrlich could win there again, it would be a good indicator for his prospects statewide.

The weather forecast

Good weather usually means good turnout, but there is a chance of showers today. Conventional wisdom holds that high turnout benefits Democrats (Maryland is a predominantly Democratic state), but Sun polls suggest that might not be true this time. Two surveys in a row have shown that frequent voters are much more likely to support O'Malley and occasional voters -- the kind who might be discouraged by rain or bad weather -- lean heavily for Ehrlich.

Montgomery County

The largest jurisdiction in the state could be crucial for Cardin. It is generally liberal and extremely attuned to federal issues, so if his argument that Steele would be too supportive of Bush is going to work, it will have to work here. If the Cardin campaign drives up turnout in Montgomery, it would likely help O'Malley, too.

Q&A

Absentee ballots

Maryland voters have requested more than 191,000 absentee ballots for today's election, and if the races for governor, Senate and some local contests are as close as expected, those ballots could play a crucial role in determining outcomes.

What if I haven't return-ed my absentee ballot?

Absentee ballots can be returned in person at your local elections office, but not at precincts, before the polls close at 8 p.m. The mail-in deadline has passed.

What if I want an absentee ballot?

You can obtain one at your local elections office today. Local officials will require you to vote at that time, so come prepared with your choices.

What if I have requested an absentee ballot but haven't received it?

Either vote by provisional ballot at your precinct or vote at your local elections office today.

When will absentee ballots be counted?

Counting of absentee ballots will begin at 10 a.m. Thursday at local election offices. They will be tallied until the counting is completed, with several jurisdictions preparing to count Friday -- which is Veterans Day -- and through the weekend.

Where are the ballots kept?

The ballots are kept locked from the moment they arrive at local offices. When counting begins, election officials check for a valid postmark (if applicable) and that the oath on the back of the sealed envelope is signed.

How does the counting take place?

Ballots are fed into an optical scanning machine. If there are stray marks or the ballot is incorrectly filled out (say, with X's rather than shaded ovals marking selections), it will be duplicated by a team made up of a Democrat and a Republican before it is inserted in the machine.

Source: State, local boards of elections

TV & RADIO

NBC Cut-ins starting at 8 p.m., hourlong report at 10; Baltimore affiliate: WBAL-Channel 11 plans local cut-ins with election coverage every half-hour starting at 8. At 10, the station will pick up NBC's network coverage, followed at 10:54 p.m. with local coverage of Maryland races into the night.

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