Just about twice as many people voted early in Maryland and Virginia this election season as four years ago, with turnout eclipsing the entire 2014 vote total in some jurisdictions.
The regional data follow a nationwide trend of surging voter participation compared with four years ago, when Republicans took control of the U.S. Senate and many Democrats stayed home for the midterm elections.
Democratic leaders and officials across the Washington metropolitan area have pointed to the numbers as evidence that local voters are hyped about their candidates and energized by opposition to President Trump.
Large turnout is particularly crucial to the strategy of Maryland Democratic gubernatorial nominee Ben Jealous, who trails Republican Gov. Larry Hogan by double digits in recent polls and is trying to close the gap with first-time voters and those who usually skip midterm elections.
But analysts caution that drawing conclusions about voter preferences from the early vote comes with a major asterisk: No one knows who the early birds are voting for.
“People are trying to read the tea leaves when the tea leaves might not tell you anything,” said Todd Eberly, associate professor of political science at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. “I don’t know there is much that you can determine.”
In Maryland, where eight days of early voting ended Thursday night, elections officials say 16.7 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot early — up from 8.3 percent in 2014. In all, 661,276 votes were cast, compared with 307,646 early votes in 2014.
Virginians cast 245,639 mailed or in-person absentee ballots as of Thursday afternoon — nearly double the 2014 total of 123,221, according to the most recent state statistics. In Fairfax County, the state’s most populous jurisdiction, 61,880 absentee ballots had been cast as of Thursday, compared with a total of 28,662 in 2014, officials there said. Voters can continue to show up for in-person absentee-ballot voting until Saturday.
The District’s totals also exceeded the city’s 2014 numbers. As of Thursday afternoon, 32,000 people had cast early ballots at 14 locations in the nation’s capital, up from a total of 26,660 four years earlier. Early voting ended Friday.
But reading too much into the numbers can throw expectations, analysts say, because early voting has been growing in popularity in recent years, and so much of what drives the early vote is its convenience. People who have voted early once tend to do it again, even as more people try it for the first time.
In past elections, higher early numbers have not necessarily meant higher overall turnout rates, and experts say they cannot determine whether a “blue wave” is coming or nothing more than a splash.
“I’m going out of town next week,” Ronald West, 76, of Prince George’s County said after casting an early ballot with his wife Tuesday at the Wayne K. Curry Sports and Learning Complex in Landover. “We are older and don’t want to forget. This way, we can get it out of the way.”
Dallah Herman, 52, relished her early vote, which took 30 minutes from the parking lot to the “I voted” sticker. “You can plan your life around it,” the Prince George’s business owner said.
She said she hasn’t forgotten waiting more than two hours to cast her vote for Barack Obama on Election Day in 2008. People pooled money to buy snacks and water and saved one another’s spots in line to retrieve folding chairs from their cars as they waited, she said.
Both Herman and the Wests say they would have voted anyway if coming in early had not been an option.
The number of same-day registrations in Maryland — an indicator of increased voter participation — did not improve significantly, analysts say. More than 6,000 voters across Maryland signed up or updated their addresses to vote — about 1 percent of the total number of early voters in the state.
Eberly said that could be a problem for Jealous, who has said he can win if more than 1 million Democrats turn out. The candidate is hoping for a swell of support from young voters, who he said are not captured accurately in polling.
David Lublin, who writes the Seventh State politics blog in Maryland, pointed out that the largest increase in early vote numbers were among adults ages 65 and older. He called it a “senior tsunami.”
At the Potomac Community Center, one of 11 early voting sites across Montgomery County, the parking lot was nearly full Wednesday.
Inside, former election judge Jerry Garson was busy collecting voter tallies from election judges and jotting them down on printed spreadsheets. Garson, who was tracking voting out of personal interest, credited voter angst for the steady stream of largely older voters filing through the center’s double doors.
“This isn’t just the popularity of early voting,” he said. “This turnout is unbelievable.”
So far, the share of early voters who are Democrats has increased slightly in Maryland this year, from 61.5 percent in 2014 to about 64 percent as of Wednesday. In Anne Arundel and Howard counties, the share of early voters that are Democrats inched higher, while the Republican share slipped slightly.
The data could be good news for Democratic candidates, including Jealous. But Hogan drew significant Democratic support in a Washington Post-University of Maryland poll issued last month, so it is possible that many of those Democratic voters are casting ballots for him.
Political analysts can also determine whether the voters who stayed home four years ago were motivated to vote early in 2018, by comparing those who voted early to the names listed on registered voter rolls both political parties purchase as part of the electoral process.
Democratic strategist Sheila O’Connell said 29 percent of Democratic early voters through Wednesday were people who had not voted in the 2014 midterms. The same was true of 19 percent of early voting Republicans.
“These infrequent voters are the meal ticket for Democrats,” O’Connell said.
The party is hoping for lots of voters like Robert Babcock, 51, of Bethesda, who came to the Potomac Community Center and said he voted for anyone with a “D” beside their name to “send a message to Trump.”
Early voting data also helps party strategists target and prioritize get-out-the-vote efforts for specific groups ahead of Election Day.
“A vote cast early is a vote you know you got,” Eberly said.
Antonio Olivo and Fenit Nirappil contributed to this report.