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After Election Day drama, casino gambling expansion prevails

A count of Maryland ballots Wednesday morning revealed 52 percent of voters had decided they were OK with an expansion of casino gambling, just four years after 58 percent approved five slots-only casinos.

But expansion supporters started Election Day having to make up an early deficit after state election officials reported 51 percent of the 420,000 early votes cast were in opposition to expanding gambling.

That wasn’t a problem. On Tuesday, 53 percent of voters supported Question 7, carrying the measure to victory.

Donald F. Norris, professor and chair of the Department of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said the explanation for the early voting difference was “deceptively simple.

“Early voters do not represent the general electorate,” Norris said. “[They are] people who are more motivated to get out to vote.”

Most of the election night drama over Question 7’s fate can be attributed to uncertainty in Baltimore.

The vote count in the city was tight through Tuesday night and early Wednesday morning as some precincts were slow to report early returns. Once they were released, however, almost 53 percent of Baltimore voters — perhaps enticed by the proposed expansion of an already-planned Caesars Entertainment Corp. casino on Russell Street — supported Question 7.

There was never much doubt about the race in the Washington suburbs, where 59 percent of Prince George’s County voters and 55 percent of Montgomery County voters decided a casino likely to be built at National Harbor would become a tourist destination for visitors to the nation’s capital.

But Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III gave a lot of credit to former County Executive Wayne K. Curry who — funded by National Harbor developer The Peterson Cos. — ran a campaign in the last several weeks that helped secure strong supporter turnout in Prince George’s on Election Day.

Curry, serving as master of ceremonies for parts of the casino expansion campaign’s election night party, said he also had some connections in Baltimore that he used to sway voters toward gambling expansion.

“I’m just happy about being able to help focus the message,” Curry said. “This is about jobs and opportunity, not just now, but well into the future.”

Four of six jurisdictions that have casinos or are expected to in the future agreed with Curry’s thinking. Baltimore, Prince George’s County, Allegany County (59 percent) and Worcester County (54 percent) supported expanded gambling.

More than 54 percent of voters in Anne Arundel County, where The Cordish Cos. operates Maryland Live Casino at Arundel Mills mall, the state’s most lucrative gambling emporium, opposed gambling expansion.

Though quiet since the General Assembly passed expanded gambling legislation, Cordish executives previously complained the state was reneging on a deal it made with companies who bid on the five casino licenses initially made available in 2008. Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold also campaigned against Question 7.

More than 57 percent of voters in Cecil County, where Penn National Gaming Inc. operates the troubled Hollywood Casino Perryville, also opposed Question 7. Penn National spent $42 million in just over two months while campaigning to stop gambling expansion.

Kristen Hawn, a spokeswoman for the pro-expansion campaign, said there were no surprises on election night. But Todd Eberly, assistant professor of political science and public policy at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, said he had not expected Southern Maryland and some traditionally conservative areas of the state, such as Allegany and Worcester counties, to support more gambling.

“Gambling and slot machines held on in Southern Maryland longer than anywhere else,” Eberly said. “That memory, coupled with the regions’ general social conservatism, I was really expecting to see it lose. … But that’s not what happened.”

By jurisdiction, voters were split right down the middle, with a majority in 11 counties and Baltimore deciding in favor of Question 7, and a majority of voters in 12 counties voting against allowing the state’s sixth casino to be built in Prince George’s County and legalizing table games at every Maryland slots parlor.

Eberly said that signaled a triumph of economic conservatism over social conservatism in Maryland.

“This is a way for the state to generate revenue without the state generating taxes and that’s pretty darn appealing to an economic conservative,” he said. “People are easily lured by the promise of easy money, and that’s what Question 7 offers.”