Candidates test waters of early voting

Many voters will cast early ballots

  • Sparse attendance at a news conference held by the state Republican and Democratic parties on early voting.
Sparse attendance at a news conference held by the state Republican… (Steve Ruark, Baltimore…)
September 02, 2010|By Julie Bykowicz, The Baltimore Sun

Maryland primary voters hit the polls Friday for the state's first-ever experience with early voting — a dry run, candidates and election officials say, for the weeklong voting period before the general election in November.

The new system has cast office-seekers in the role of de facto educators, explaining the process to voters. Many also include early voting information in their campaign literature and have begun mentioning it in automated phone calls to voters. Many, including the governor and his chief competitor, hope to lead by example by casting their own votes early.

"It's kind of crept up on us," Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley said at an early voting rally this week in Annapolis with legislative leaders and the legislative black caucus. "It is still new to people as I encounter them on the street. Let's hope for a big turnout."

The leaders of the state's Democratic and Republican parties held a rare joint news conference Thursday to spread the word.

"Early voting will make it easier for all Marylanders to get to the polls, regardless of their hectic schedules — increasing voter turnout, and giving all registered voters in this state an opportunity for their voices to be heard," Democratic Chairwoman Susan W. Turnbull and Republican Chairwoman Audrey E. Scott said in a joint statement.

O'Malley faces only token opposition in the Democratic gubernatorial primary; his two challengers have little name recognition or money. But aides have said early voting in the primary will provide a valuable preview of how the process will unfold in November.

In the Republican gubernatorial primary, former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. must face down Brian Murphy, a Montgomery County businessman who is far less widely known but drew national attention when former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin announced her support for him this summer.

"It's hard to figure out what early voting means in the Republican primary, given that this is the first time," Murphy said this week. "We're aware of it, but it's a nonfactor."

Murphy and others — Republicans and Democrats alike — predicted that only a tiny fraction of registered voters would cast their ballots early in the primary election. In Maryland's 2006 gubernatorial primary, about 855,000 people voted, less than 30 percent of those who were eligible.

Voter registration has ticked up slightly since then, but primary elections tend to bring out only the most committed voters, political analysts say. Most predict that early voters in the primaries will be people who would have cast absentee ballots otherwise. States with long-established early voting typically see about 20 percent of votes cast before election day.

Ross Goldstein, deputy state elections director at the Maryland Board of Elections, said the state was ready.

There are 46 early voting centers across the state, compared with about 1,900 polling places on Election Day, he said. Each will be monitored by Democratic and Republican elections judges, just as on primary election day. Neither party has reported problems staffing the centers.

All early voting centers are open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday through Thursday, with the exception of Sunday, when they are closed. Registered voters may cast ballots at any center in their home county.

Populous places have several early voting sites — there are five in Baltimore — while more rural areas such as Washington County have just one.

"I don't anticipate that large of a turnout for early voting, at least this county," said Del. Christopher B. Shank, a Republican in a tight primary election against an incumbent Republican senator in the area. "But smart campaigns have to be prepared and get their message out early, not just on Sept. 14. You've got to balance the importance of that day against the people who might vote early."

One way that candidates appear to be striking that balance is by encouraging early voting. Many are leading by example: O'Malley, Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown and Democratic House Speaker Michael E. Busch of Anne Arundel County plan to vote Friday.

Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy said she plans to vote Friday in the Democratic primary so that she can see for herself how the process works.

"As we go out to the community, we're telling people that they can vote early, and they seem surprised," said Jessamy, who faces the well-financed and police-backed Gregg Bernstein in her toughest primary in years. "Our message to people is: Vote early, vote on the 14th, but don't vote late."

Bernstein has no plan to vote early but has been trumpeting the process in his robust social media campaign.

Early voting has posed a bit of an awkward situation for Ehrlich, who led the charge against it while he was governor.

Ehrlich composed a YouTube message in which he attempts to reconcile his opposition to early voting with his desire for you to vote early for him.

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