Maryland’s long shuffle to the primary election will likely end without an immediate, satisfying finish.
Despite slow in-person voter turnout Tuesday, winners in some of most watched races, including governor and some local races, may not be known for days if not weeks.
Don Murphy, a former Republican state lawmaker, spent time at Patapsco High School on the east side of Baltimore County. Less than four dozen voters cast ballots in the first three hours.
Murphy said “low turnout bodes well for the insurgents versus the establishment candidates. Some incumbents will go down today.”
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The low turnout was likely “bad for Schulz and Franchot and Shellenberger,” said Murphy, speaking of Kelly Schulz and Comptroller Peter Franchot. The Republican and Democrat are each seeking their party’s nomination. Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger also faces a challenge from upstart Democrat Robbie Leonard.
Over eight days or early voting, about 172,000 people cast their ballots — about 4.6% of all eligible registered voters. That’s lower than the 226,000 who voted during early voting in 2018.
Nikki Charlson, deputy state elections director, said anecdotally that voting on primary day was “slow.”
“It’s too early to say what turnout will actually be,” said Charlson.
Some of the low turnout could be driven by the more than 500,000 mail-in ballots requested by voters around the state.
“I definitely think that with the mail-in ballots there are some people who would have otherwise shown up for in-person voting,” she said.
Roughly 500,000 mail in ballots were sent to Maryland voters. About 75% of them were sent to voters in Baltimore city, Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Howard, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.
Elections officials say they do not expect all of those ballots to be returned. Even so, those that are — including those postmarked before midnight Tuesday night — won’t be counted Tuesday night. Counting of those ballots will start Thursday.
So far, about 213,000 have been returned. In 2018, about 70% of all requested mail-in ballots were returned.
Two years ago, nearly 89% of mail-in ballots were returned. That figure was driven by the pandemic and an expanded use of mail-in ballots.
“It’s hard to know what our new normal is,” said Charlson.
Also, two years ago the local elections boards had the ability to start processing the mail-in ballots early so that results could be tallied and released on election night.
Gov. Larry Hogan vetoed a bill that would have made those rules under a state of emergency law because he said the bill sent to him did not include language barring so-called “ballot harvesting” and other issues raised by Republicans.
Based on previous years, 350,000 to 440,000 ballots – if not more — could be returned for counting.
In some close races, a winner might not be known for 7-10 days.
“Some of the larger counties may not be finished until the first week in August,” Charlson cautioned.
The x-factor of mail-in ballots means many campaigns in close races likely won’t know who won for days. And while a number of campaigns are having traditional “victory parties,” those will also look different.
The election night party in Bethesda for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Perez is being billed as more of a celebration and thank you to volunteers.
“This is really a thank you for our volunteers for all the hard work they did during this long election cycle,” said Sean Naron, a spokesman for the Perez campaign. “With all of those votes out there still to be counted, we’re prepared to go through the process, however long it takes.”