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Early primary voting gets underway in Montgomery, Prince George's counties

By Michael Laris and Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, September 4, 2010; B01

Maryland's experiment with early voting started Friday -- with a trickle.

At polling sites in Silver Spring and Landover, candidates and campaign workers outnumbered voters throughout the day, making their final appeals to the first live bodies in what has essentially become a rolling primary.

Old-fashioned primary day, with voters lining up at neighborhood schools and other polling places, is still Sept. 14. But five voting centers in Montgomery County, five more in Prince George's and others throughout the state will be open again Saturday, as well as Monday through Thursday next week. Hours are 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. The centers will be closed Sunday.

The goal was to make it easier for people with inflexible jobs, child-care emergencies, out-of-town plans -- or just spotty memories -- to vote. Political infighting had long blocked the idea. But it became a reality Friday, and Nancy Gaynor, a retired sales manager from Bethesda, was pleased. She will be in Laguna Beach, Calif., seeing her son on Sept. 14.

"I get back between 4 and 5, but you can't count on that," Gaynor said. The registered Democrat said she split her local ballot between current members of Montgomery's County Council and newcomers. "I'm not at all anti-incumbent. I choose who I think is doing a good job," she said. "I do think it's a thankless job. Half the people love you; half the people hate you."

By 1 p.m., just 123 Montgomery County voters had joined Gaynor in casting ballots at the new wood-and-glass civic building in Silver Spring. In Prince George's County, about 200 voters had cast early ballots by midday at the Wayne K. Curry Sports and Learning complex in Landover.

That languid pace held throughout the day, with somewhat greater participation in Prince George's. By 5 p.m., about 2,000 people had cast ballots in Prince George's, which has 514,000 registered voters, according to county Elections Administrator Alisha Alexander. In Montgomery, with more than 621,000 registered voters, the tally at that hour was 1,009.

Early-voting fans

Proponents said they hoped the first day of early voting marked the beginning of a transition from what at times can feel like a frantic civic chore.

At earlier points in American history, there would "be almost like a carnival-type feeling. It would go for days, and people would drink rum," said state Sen. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Montgomery), who is running unopposed. "Maybe we could go back to the vision of voting as . . . a celebrated activity. People should have a sense of pride and pleasure in voting."

In Prince George's, no incumbent is running for county executive, state's attorney or sheriff, promoting a flurry of aggressive campaigning. Signs cluttered intersections, and campaign workers were coming on strong. Elaine Morris, 90, said she hoped taking advantage of early voting, and getting her prized "I voted" sticker, might help drive away those pesky poll workers.

Deborah Mitchell, a research analyst from Lake Arbor, barely made it out of her car before she was approached by a candidate who gave her a handful of materials. "This is good," Mitchell said. "This is the first time this particular process has been offered, and I can really take the time to think about who I wanted to vote for."

Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) and his wife, Katie O'Malley, took a break Friday afternoon from moving their daughter, Tara, to college at Loyola University to cast their ballots at a North Baltimore polling station.

The governor and his wife greeted a handful of supporters outside the building, then checked in and voted using touch-screen ballot machines. A bank of television cameras was trained on the governor while he made his selections.

"It was easy, and it was very quick," O'Malley said after spending about three minutes voting. "I want to encourage everybody to take advantage of this."

O'Malley refrained from using his time in front of the cameras to continue the message pushed this week by his campaign staff -- that he supports early voting, while former governor Robert L. Ehrlich (R), his likely opponent in November, opposes it.

That sentiment was clear in a campaign statement Thursday announcing O'Malley's and Lt Gov. Anthony G. Brown's plans to vote Friday. "It's shameful that Bob Ehrlich opposed common-sense efforts to make it easier to vote," Brown said in the statement. Ehrlich told supporters in a YouTube video this week that he considers early voting "a solution in search of a problem," but he encouraged supporters to "take advantage" nevertheless.

O'Malley faces no serious opposition for the Democratic nomination, but asked whether early voting changes the calculus for campaigning in the state, he said: "In every campaign we gear up until decision day. That day is now a window of days that will begin today and continue.

"I suppose it sort of front-loads some things."

Campaigning at the polls

In Prince George's, the candidates also attended another early-voting destination, the College Park Community Center.

Among them was 18-year-old David Murray, a candidate for the Ward 1 seat on the Prince George's Board of Education who was sporting a blue shirt, a red tie and enough talking points to fill up a composition book.

Asked if age would be a factor in the campaign, Murray started talking: "I am a freshman at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, I was appointed by Governor O'Malley to the State Board of Education, I worked on President Obama's competitive grant program, I am in touch with the people and I have the experience to back it up."

Montgomery electoral board member Nancy Dacek said officials are expecting a bigger day Saturday. The scant turnout has an upside, though: "You can walk in and you're done in three minutes and you're out," she said. "If you don't vote, don't tell us you didn't like the people who were elected."

A list of early voting sites can be found at http://www.mdearlyvote.com.

Staff writer Aaron C. Davis contributed to this report.

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