This year, Marylanders will have their first opportunity to stand at a voting machine and cast their ballots before Election Day.
Approved by voters in 2008 and created by the legislature in 2009, Maryland's early voting program debuts at a time when the marquee showdown between a current and former governor dominates most election coverage. Consequently, many voters may be unaware of this fundamental change to Maryland's voting experience.
Here's how it works: Forty-six early voting centers will open across the state shortly before the primary and general elections. Most jurisdictions will only have one center. But Howard County will have three, and Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Montgomery, and Prince George's counties will each have five.
Just as on Election Day, voters will check in and cast their ballots at touch screen machines. All voting equipment and supplies are to be secured, and voted provisional ballots returned to the local elections board, each evening.
Conventional wisdom assumes that a program crafted by a Democratic legislature in a Democratic state helps Democrats. But an effective early voting outreach program hinges upon three dynamic elements.
1) Resources. Each party must field a program to deliver early voters to the polls, and identify and mobilize supporters who have not yet voted using information provided by the State Board of Elections.
To date, the respective state party organizations have led early voting outreach efforts. As the majority party, Democrats have the infrastructure, financial resources, personnel and grass-roots network in place to develop an early voting program. State Democratic Chairwoman Susan Turnbull promises the "most robust Get Out the Vote (GOTV), Election Protection, Early Vote and Vote by Mail programs Maryland has ever seen."
But the state's resurgent Republican Party has its own ambitious early voting plan. This includes a voter-education campaign, election integrity monitoring, regional field offices, and staff hired specifically to support absentee ballot/early voting efforts. If the state GOP delivers a fully functioning program, it can exceed expectations here just as it has through its early fundraising, organizational and staffing successes.
2) Passion. People will not vote early simply because they are badgered by party workers. They have to want to vote. So far this year, early voting results in other states indicate passion among Republican voters. In Tennessee, a GOP-leaning state where Democrats can and do win elections, twice as many Republicans voted during the July early voting period than did Democrats.
For state Democrats, voter passion may peak during the primary because of several contested local races. These include the Kevin Kamenetz-Joe Bartenfelder showdown for executive of Baltimore County (where four councilmanic seats presently held by Democrats are open), and the Prince George's County executive contest, where five Democrats are vying to succeed term-limited incumbent Jack Johnson.
For Republicans, energized supporters of Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s comeback attempt may be more receptive to early voter outreach in the fall. Gov. Martin O'Malley's early voting challenge is the same as he faces overall: motivating his base to vote in an unfavorable election year for Democrats.
3) Experience. With early voting beginning in less than a month, both parties face the same time constraints. Leveraging the experiences of those who have managed successful outreach programs in the other 31 early voting states would shorten the learning curve. So far, neither party has publicly heralded the arrival of an acknowledged early voting guru in Maryland. Such a hire would demonstrate a belief that early voter outreach is a central strategy of a winning campaign.
Enactment of early voting in Maryland was met with celebration among many Democrats and a vague sense of dread among Republicans. Neither reaction was entirely justified. Early voting has not had a transformative impact on the democratic process elsewhere. Nor has it resulted in the kind of widespread fraud feared by skeptics.
Now that early voting is here, both Republicans and Democrats must use it responsibly, if competitively. It is another tool of the democratic process. As long as this tool sustains the integrity of elections, there is no reason why citizens, candidates and parties cannot all benefit.
Richard J. Cross III, a Baltimore resident, is a former press secretary and speechwriter to Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. His e-mail is email@example.com.