COLLEGE PARK – The first day of early voting in Maryland Friday was sparsely attended, featuring mostly retired citizens trickling into early voting stations amid criticism that the new service hadn’t gotten enough publicity.
While most voters, campaigners and politicians are not expecting voter turnout to increase significantly, they are hopeful that residents will take advantage of the extra time to vote and to become familiar with a procedure expected to be fine-tuned for the presidential election in 2012.
“The jury is still out on this,” said Valerie L. Cunningham, a candidate for the Prince George’s County Council District 1 who was greeting voters outside the College Park Community Center.
Cunningham said that about 100 people had been in to vote at that location by 11:30 a.m., which she said was a testament to the efforts of state and county leaders to raise awareness for the extra days of voting.
The early voting issue was put on the 2008 ballot and approved by more than 70 percent of voters. The Maryland General Assembly then approved rules for early voting in its 2009 session.
A limited number of polls were opened in each of Maryland’s counties beginning Friday through Thursday to give citizens an extra week to vote before the Sept. 14 primary. Registered voters may cast ballots from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., excluding Sunday, with a voter registration card and Maryland identification. Early voting for the general election will be conducted from Oct. 22 through Oct. 28, again with the exception of Sunday, Oct. 24.
“Every eligible voter has been sent notice of early voting, and there has been public service announcements and radio ads,” said Donna Duncan, director of the Election Management Division of the Maryland Board of Elections. “We certainly hope that the word is out to all citizens.”
But even some voters said there was not enough notification about early voting.
At Bauer Drive Community Center in Rockville where 17 people were in line to vote when the doors opened at 10 a.m., Jeramie Calandro of Olney, who is campaigning for state Sen. Mike Lenett’s re-election, said she thought not enough had been done to let people know of the extra days to vote.
“Maybe some lawn signs,” she suggested, would have helped to draw more crowds. Today she is hoping that passing commuters will see the campaign posters on the street and stop in to vote.
John O’Master, the chief judge at the College Park Community Center, has been an election judge for 30 years and said not enough advertising was done to educate citizens. Most of those voting Friday lived in nearby retirement homes and are not constricted by time limits. They likely would have turned out on Election Day.
“I was concerned that boredom was going to be our greatest problem,” O’Master said, mentioning also that with 12 extra days of voting before the primary and regular elections, costs may have gone up proportionally higher than voting rates.
The early voting days have come as part of a series of changes in voting procedures in Maryland over the past several years, including the switch to an electronic voting system and the easing of regulations on absentee voting.
“I expect that the turnout is going to be light this time around,” said Elliot Chabot, the secretary of the Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee. “But it’s a larger turnout than we would have had with the old rules.”
One Rockville resident, Marco Simons, lined up early to vote because he is leaving the country before the primary election. In the past, he said he would not have voted because couldn’t be sure an absentee ballot would arrive on time.
“I think giving people more opportunities to vote is a good thing,”
Simons said. “We’ll see how many people take advantage of it.”
Wendy Hamilton of Laurel, who was campaigning in College Park for Michael Jackson for County Executive, said that despite promotion efforts, many people are just generally apathetic during the midterm elections.
“You can’t make people pay attention,” she said. “If people don’t know about it, it won’t be for lack of trying.”
Jerry Anzulovic, a committee member of the Prince George’s County Democratic Central Committee, voted Friday at the College Park Community Center in part because, he said, he is part of an organization that pushed early voting, mostly through word of mouth. He said that the most important aspect of early voting is that there will not be early report of results so that there is no influence on people who vote later in the week.
Anzulovic admits that promotion efforts by his own group and by the state were not very strong this year, mostly because so much time was spent trying to work out the kinks in the new system.
“But by 2012,” Anzulovic said, “we should be able to really promote it.”