About 27% of Montgomery County voters cast ballots in the July 19 primary. Credit: File photo

Overall voter turnout in the July 19 primary in Montgomery County was slightly more than 27% — a modest increase from the nearly 24.6% of county voters who participated in the last primary election for state and county offices four years ago, according to newly released data from the Maryland State Board of Elections.

Democratic turnout in Montgomery this year was similar to 2018, standing at nearly 35.8% as compared to approximately 35.3% four years ago. But a significantly larger share of Republicans in the county — a little more than 24.5% — turned out this time around, an increase from a showing of about 15.3% in 2018.

In contrast to 2018, when Gov. Larry Hogan was unopposed for renomination to a second term, there was a heated primary battle this time to succeed the term-limited Hogan between state Del. Dan Cox, who won the nomination, and former Maryland Commerce Secretary Kelly Schulz. In addition, the July 19 primary featured a Republican contest for the nomination for Montgomery County executive — a rare occurrence in recent decades in a county where registered Democrats now outnumber Republicans by more than 4-1.

A major distinction between 2022 and four years ago involved voting methods.

In 2018, only 10,600 Montgomery voters cast ballots by mail — then officially characterized as “absentee ballots” by the State Board of Elections. This year, this form of voting shot up in popularity in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, with more than 75,700 Montgomery voters either mailing in or depositing their ballots in drop boxes around the county. (About 84% of “mail-in ballots” were cast by registered Democrats).

This year, just short of 105,600 Montgomery voters opted to go to the polls in person, down by nearly 40% from the nearly 147,700 who showed up at the polls for the pre-pandemic primary held on June 26, 2018.  

This year’s turnout percentage of 27.04% in Montgomery County was slightly below the statewide average of 27.36%, according to the statistics on the State Board of Elections website.  In addition, Montgomery ranked only 18th in overall turnout among the 24 major jurisdictions in the state.

Among the state’s largest jurisdictions — the so-called “Big Eight” of Baltimore City and the counties of Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Frederick, Harford, Howard, and Prince George’s as well as Montgomery — turnout percentage in Montgomery ranked sixth, ahead of only Frederick, at 26%, and Baltimore City, at just below 24%.

On a more upbeat note, primary turnout this year and in 2018 has increased significantly from the state and county election of 2014, when overall turnout in Montgomery was just 16.3% despite competitive primaries for governor in both parties and a high-profile Democratic race for the county executive nomination pitting the then-incumbent, Ike Leggett, against his predecessor, Doug Duncan.

Democratic primary turnout in the county in 2014 was slightly below 24%, about one-third less than the percentages for both this year and 2018. And Republican turnout in 2014 stood at barely 11.75%, less than half of this year’s percentage among GOP voters.

Montgomery County is also home to more than 156,000 “unaffiliated” voters — by far the largest number of any county in the state, and about 30% of all voters in Maryland who have chosen to remain independent of a political party. Such voters can participate in primary elections only to select non-partisan offices, such as Board of Education members.

Only 7% of Montgomery’s unaffiliated voters participated in this year’s primary, up from slightly less than 4.4% four years ago.

Final turnout figures from the State Board of Elections show a little more than 145,750 Montgomery County Democrats voted in this year’s primary; nearly all of them, 141,600, cast ballots in the contest for the county executive nomination. There are nearly 670,500 active registered voters — Democrats, Republicans, unaffiliated and members of other political parties — in the county.

Although it’s not a figure that appears in this year’s official State Board of Elections tabulation, this translates into about 21% of all registered voters effectively determining who will become the next Montgomery County executive — given that winning the Democratic primary has been tantamount to election in the overwhelmingly Democratic county in recent years.

Coming in the wake of a primary contest where the outcome for county executive turned on a margin of less than three dozen votes, such numbers seem likely to fuel future debate about ways to broaden voter participation, political observers say.