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A delayed primary date and the availability of mail-in ballots could have contributed to a decline in the number of ballots cast early in the upcoming primary versus prior election cycles, political observers say.

And with three days until the July 19 primary, it’s difficult to tell whether there will be a last-minute rush of mail-in ballots received by the county’s Board of Elections, and what impact those numbers could have on this year’s races.

According to data from the state’s Board of Elections, 24,704 Montgomery County voters cast ballots during early voting, which ran from July 7 through 14. During the 2018 gubernatorial primary election, 35,963 people voted early. More than 42,000 cast ballots during early voting for the 2016 presidential election. There was no early voting during the 2020 presidential election because of the coronavirus pandemic.  

County officials and academic experts have said it’s difficult to gauge what impact mail-in ballots could have on local races this year. As of July 14, the county had sent out 114,183 mail-in ballots, but only 19,424 had been returned, according to state election data. 

In the 2020 presidential primary election, more than 242,000 mail-in ballots were received, state data shows. That’s significantly more than during the past three election cycles — 10,610 in 2018, 19,358 in 2016, and 4,010 in 2014.

Political scientists noted the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and the effect of former President Donald Trump running as reasons why mail-in ballots were so high in 2020. 

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Alysoun McLaughlin, the county’s acting election director, said the likely substantial increase in the number of mail-in ballots that will be arrive between Thursday and Election Day at 8 p.m. combined with the fact that county election workers — because of state law — can’t start counting those ballots until Thursday, July 21, means it’s highly unlikely that any close races will be called Tuesday night or even Wednesday morning.

She said it’s “premature to say” what the margins will need to be in various races for media organizations and campaigns to begin calling races at the county level.

“I don’t call races, I count ballots,” McLaughlin said. “[And] I count every ballot.”

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McLaughlin said that according to state law, county election officials can accept mail-in ballots as long as they are postmarked by 8 p.m. July 19 and are delivered to the county Board of Elections office by July 29. In addition to voting in person, voters can drop their mail-in ballots into a ballot drop box by 8 p.m. on Election Day, according to state law.

County election officials are hoping to have counted 95% of the eligible ballots by the first week of August, giving them enough time to certify the election later that month, McLaughlin said. The speed at which election workers can process ballots will depend on the type of ballot — mail-in ballots delivered electronically, and provisional ballots can take longer to process than a ballot sent through the mail or placed in a drop box, she added.

The county’s Board of Elections has ordered sorting equipment and reconfigured its facility to handle any potential increase in mail-in ballots, said McLaughlin, noting that she could not predict how many ballots could be counted in a given day. 

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Political observers weigh in on 2022 primary turnout

Sunil Dasgupta, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County at the Universities of Shady Grove, said that although fewer voters cast ballots during early voting, there still is the potential for tens of thousands of voters to submit mail-in ballots by 8 p.m. Tuesday and for others to show up at the polls.

He added that multiple factors may have contributed to the lower numbers including the fact that the primary was moved from June 28 to July 19 — a delay caused by legal challenges to the state’s congressional and state legislative maps.

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Also, people may not have been able to take the time to research the candidates, Dasgupta said.

Dasgupta, who also hosts “I Hate Politics,” a podcast focusing on Montgomery County and its elections, said he’s interviewed many of the candidates running for county offices and some of those seeking state offices. 

“I think almost all the campaigns I’ve spoken with, they have said the expectation is low voter turnout,” Dasgupta said. That’s partly because of the change in the election date, and also because candidates in many races haven’t been able to differentiate themselves from their competitors, he said.

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Roger Hartley, dean of the College of Public Affairs at the University of Baltimore, said delaying the primary to July certainly had an impact on early voting. But it’s unclear whether more people will take advantage of mail-in ballots by the primary election day.

Mail-in voting is a form of voting that is “here to stay” unless politics interrupts that kind of access to the ballot box, Hartley said. The coronavirus pandemic has shown that Marylanders appreciate the convenience of working and accomplishing other activities at home and that leads to a greater use of mail-in ballots, he added.

The fact that so many mail-in ballots haven’t been returned yet opens the door to a hard-working campaign to win a close race, including at the local level, Hartley said.

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“A campaign with a terrific ground game and a really good phone center is going to be a type of campaign that can win this,” Hartley said. 

Ike Leggett, who served on the County Council from 1986 through 2002 and as county executive from 2002 to 2018, noted that it’s difficult for candidates to canvass during the summer when people may be on vacation. 

“Going out and campaigning and door knocking at this time of year is tough,” he said. “You generate support when you go out to meetings, you talk to people, and you hand them flyers. It’s hard to do that in the middle of summer — no one is home, and it’s hot, so that takes its toll.”

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[For more information on candidates for local, state and federal races, check out the Bethesda Beat voters guide.]

The primary election is July 19. Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. and voters can register on Election Day. Mail-in ballots will be accepted as long as they are postmarked by 8 p.m. July 19,or are dropped into a ballot drop box by that point. 

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com 

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