Parties rev up political machinery in Maryland to boost early voting turnout

Former Md. Gov. Robert Ehrlich squared-off against current Governor Martin O'Malley in a spirited debate Thursday at The Washington Post.
By Aaron C. Davis and John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, October 22, 2010; 10:57 PM

As Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley and a parade of mostly Democratic politicians cast their ballots Friday to promote early voting, the real work of using the state's first week-long get-out-the-vote period for a general election began to take shape around folding tables in empty offices rented recently by the state's Democratic and Republican parties.

In a sparse, 700-square-foot room in Annapolis, Laurel Schmuck, 22, a recent University of Maryland graduate and other volunteers ranging from college students to senior citizens sat around a table with 24 high-tech phones, reading from a script. It told them to ask whether those they were calling planned to vote for "the Republican team." If they were, voters were reminded about early voting as an option "to avoid long lines at your polling place on Election Day."

Crowded in a shuttered insurance office 20 miles away in Lanham, Democratic Party volunteers worked off their own script, which scrolled across the screens of laptops tied to a massive statewide phone-banking system. Just before the polls closed on the first day of early voting, 300 Democratic volunteers hooked into the robo-dialer were on pace to complete a combined 50,000 calls.

Before hundreds return to the task this morning, both camps will have downloaded the names of the more than 24,000 voters who cast their ballots on Friday. The names, which they are purchasing from the Maryland State Board of Elections, will be scratched from the lists and deleted from databases so volunteers won't waste their time calling someone who's already voted.

Maryland's two main political parties say they are pulling out all the stops to get as many voters to the polls as they can before Nov. 2. The behind-the-scenes machinations will be matched with very public efforts beginning Saturday with dueling statewide tours by O'Malley and former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

He and his running mate, Mary D. Kane, a former secretary of state, will launch an "Early Voting Tour Across Maryland" on Saturday _blankwith nine appearances between them, including a 4 p.m. visit by Kane to Bowie, in Prince George's County. Ehrlich's Web site on Friday featured a map of the polling stations he would hit.

O'Malley dubbed the upcoming barnstorm "Super Saturday" after casting his own ballot Friday afternoon in North Baltimore, where he remains registered despite living in the governor's mansion. _blankThe governor's stops will include Landover, Largo and Silver Spring in the D.C. suburbs.

He and Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown will attend 11 weekend rallies, most with buses and vans parked nearby to ferry voters to early-voting sites afterward.

"The idea is to have an event, and then have everyone go vote," said Travis Tazelaar, executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party, who on Friday was stalking the halls of the Lanham phone bank wearing jeans and a fleece jacket. "We don't know exactly what to expect, but we're doing everything we can."

Tazelaar said the party had studied first-year turnout in dozens of states that adopted early voting and found that the practice only becomes ingrained after a presidential race. "People have been voting a certain way their whole life and they're used to that," he said, adding that volunteers on Friday felt like they were spending a lot of time explaining to senior citizens that they could vote early at several locations other than their usual polling place.

While it won't be clear until Election Day, the state Democratic Party's fundraising prowess is expected to give it a significant edge in organizing and capitalizing on its early-voting effort. The party has 30 call centers to the state Republican Party's seven, and is preparing to spend at least $2 million on transportation, mailers and other get-out-the-vote efforts, said party Chairwoman Susan Turnbull. "Campaigns that win have money, organization and message, and we have all three," she said.

Ryan Mahoney, political director of the Maryland GOP, would not say how much the party was spending on early-voting efforts, which he characterized as part of a much broader enterprise that was months in the making. Until early this year, the party had been saddled with debt and was at a significant financial disadvantage. Mahoney said its get-out-the-vote effort has been paid for through a combination of state and national party funds, as well as donations from Republican campaigns.

Mahoney said he did not believe early voting provided Democrats an advantage.

"We're doing the same thing they are, and our voters are more enthused and likely to turn out," he said.

Either way, if they don't turn out, both parties' voters can expect the calls to continue until early voting ends on Oct. 28.

"It seems like a boring thing to do, many people think," said Schmuck, the recent grad, "but it's actually pretty effective."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company