Early voting comes to Maryland

Six extra days to cast ballots is expected to alter tactics of last-minute campaigning

June 20, 2010|By Annie Linskey, The Baltimore Sun

Republicans and Democrats are plotting strategy to take advantage of the state's new early-voting rules, which are expected to stretch the traditional Election Day get-out-the-vote frenzy to a week.

Beginning with the primary elections in September, the rules will give voters six extra days to cast their ballots. It will be the first time the state has allowed early voting since it was approved by ballot initiative two years ago.

Democrats, who enjoy a 2-1 edge over Republicans in voter registration, say the change will give them more opportunity to get the party faithful to the polls, and help them strengthen their hold on power.

But Republicans say relying on registration will backfire this year. They say the rules will make it easier for angry Marylanders to cast their votes to send the majority party packing. Also, they hope to buck national trends and use the new schedule to persuade new supporters to participate.

One thing seems certain: The campaigns will have far more information about who has been to their polling place and who has not during the course of the voting period, opening the door to a prolonged and closely targeted get-out-the-vote effort that could mean days of phone calls to Maryland households.

The State Board of Elections plans to release lists detailing party identification the morning after each early-voting day. A savvy campaign operation will compare that list to pre-identified supporters, split it up into manageable groups and direct volunteers at phone banks to call supporters and offer rides to the polls. The process could conceivably be repeated each day.

"If you vote early you won't have someone call every day," said Del. Maggie McIntosh, who is chairing the coordinated campaign for the Democratic Party this year. "The whole idea is to persuade people that the election is important."

The board will not count votes until Election Day, but the data will still provide campaigns nearly real-time feedback on the success of their voter turnout efforts and allow them to shift resources as the election is unfolding.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch predicts his party will have a more formidable organization. The sheer number of statewide elected Democrats means the party has overlapping networks in place to push their supporters to go to the polls, a labor-intensive process.

But Maryland Democrats haven't always delivered on get-out-the-vote operations. Busch attributed three Republican victories in 2006 to challengers focusing on absentee voters.

One such challenger has won in Busch's district: Del. Ron George. The Annapolis-based jewelry store owner sent mailings encouraging supporters to apply for absentee ballots, called through a list of registered Republicans in his district who had applied and even went door-to-door reminding people to put their ballots in the mail.

Election night results showed George losing by 559 votes, but he eked out a 53-vote win after officials counted absentee ballots. "I think we did a better effort," he said.

George plans a similar strategy this year. And it could be even more effective: The state's absentee voting rules will also be loosened so voters can request ballots in the mail without providing an excuse.

Republicans say the party will hire at least one and possibly two staff members dedicated entirely to developing a plan geared at getting people to vote early — either in person or by mail.

"If they can use it to their advantage, we can use it to ours," said Maryland GOP party chair Audrey Scott. She envisions calling every supporter in the state who applies for an absentee ballot. Possibly twice.

Scott hopes that early voting in Maryland will contribute to a surge in Republican voter participation — and there is already a plan in place to make that happen.

"Our goal is to increase our voter turnout to a certain percentage," she said. "We know what that [percentage] is in every single county."

Trends from the 30 other states that allow voters to cast their ballots at the polls early indicate Scott will have an uphill battle. Rice University political scientist Robert Stein, who studies early voting, has found no significant increase in participation.

"Early voting makes people who want to vote, vote," he said. But he did find that campaigns spent more money in early-voting states. He believes the funds went to setting up phone banks for multiple days to call through lists of supporters.

Stein said challengers seem to benefit, because they tend to be the ones to take advantage of the new rules.

"It is the challengers who say 'we need an edge,' " he said.

But one study found that early voting actually decreased turnout by a few percentage points. University of Wisconsin political scientist Barry Burden theorized that a drawn out voting schedule diffuses the Election Day excitement and dampens turnout.

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