At the midpoint, Maryland has seen a decrease in voters taking advantage of early voting so far in 2022, but what that means for overall turnout remains up in the air with hundreds of thousands of mail-in ballots yet to be cast.
In the first four days of early voting, 58,715 Marylanders cast their ballots at early voting centers across the state — less than 2% of all eligible active voters. That’s almost 23,000 fewer voters than at the same point in the process in 2018, the state’s most recent gubernatorial primary. That year one-quarter of all votes were cast by early voters.
In years past, the dip may have been cause for alarm, but the statistics don’t account for a massive variable in the state’s first post-pandemic gubernatorial primary: mail-in ballots. As of Monday, 480,796 mail-in ballots had been sent to voters who made the request. Of those, 115,060, or about one-quarter, have been returned.
By comparison, in the 2018 primary only 30,077 voters cast mail-in ballots, then known as absentee ballots.
Some have predicted low turnout for the 2022 primary despite competitive races for governor, attorney general and comptroller where none of the three incumbents is running for reelection. The open seats have attracted large fields of candidates who have flooded air waves, social media and mailboxes with campaign materials, trying to emerge from the pack.
Complicating matters is the state’s late primary, delayed from its original date on June 28 as redistricting challenges worked their way through the court system. Maryland is the only state in the U.S. sharing a primary day with Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game on July 19.
Voters heading to the polls during Maryland’s early voting window typically ebb and flow along somewhat fixed patterns. The first and last days are often popular. Weekends, although a seemingly attractive option for people who work weekdays, tend to be slow.
This year, Friday, the second day of voting, has been the busiest thus far, with 18,921 voters casting ballots. Thursday, when the window opened, saw almost as many with 18,391. More than 25,000 voters cast ballots each of those days in 2018.
Lower turnout could favor candidates on the extreme sides of either party, said Roger Hartley, dean of the University of Baltimore’s College of Public Affairs. Primaries tend to attract the most loyal members of a party to begin with. If you cut back on those margins, you see more extremes, he said.
“If people on the far right are turning out, it might benefit a Dan Cox over a Kelly Schulz,” Hartley said, referring to the Republican matchup for governor between the far-right Cox and the centrist Schulz, who has been backed by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan. “It might benefit a Robbie Leonard over a Scott Shellenberger.”
Leonard is challenging incumbent Shellenberger for Baltimore County State’s Attorney.
It’s also possible, however, that voters are just slow to get to the polls or return ballots, Hartley said. Polls have showed high numbers of undecided voters in state races. People are in a different mindset in the summer, Hartley said. They’re not necessarily thinking about voting.
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“I went to my early voting poll last week and there were far more candidates and people campaigning for candidates there than people voting,” Hartley said. “Maybe it’s just disinterest.”
Martha McKenna, a campaign consultant who has been doing work for comptroller candidate Brooke Lierman this cycle, said she expects turnout to match at least 2018 levels, when ultimately 25% of voters went to the polls. July 19 is not dramatically later than June 28, McKenna argued. Both dates are in the summer.
It’s hard to compare 2022 to any previous year because the pandemic has had extended effects on how people vote, McKenna said. Maryland is offering a hybrid voting model this year with a full compliment of 1,500 Election Day polling places, almost 100 early voting centers and ballot drop boxes across the state. Drop boxes were first introduced in 2020.
The only other election in the state’s history with a similar combination was the November 2020 presidential election. That fall, half of the state’s participating voters, about 1.5 million people, cast mail-in ballots, while the other half voted in person — about 1 million at early voting centers and roughly 500,000 on Election Day.
Many factors differed between the two elections, however. Maryland’s primaries are closed, meaning only Republicans and Democrats may participate, while general elections are available to all registered voters. Presidential elections typically attract far more voters — about 75% voted in 2020. And the pandemic has changed shape significantly since the fall of 2020, potentially altering voting patterns.
With three-quarters of the mail-in ballots requested statewide yet to be returned, there’s room for candidates to gain ground by being on the ground, reminding voters to return them, Hartley said. Campaigns that have a stronger ground game, deeper bases and better voter lists stand to benefit, he said.
“It’s about getting out the vote versus trying to expand the universe of people who haven’t,” he said.