The full picture of Maryland’s voter turnout in Tuesday’s primary election is still blurry, with thousands of mailed-in and provisional ballots left to count and more that could still arrive in time to be included.

But one thing is for certain: The number of people who voted in-person on election day, and the volume of people who cast ballots during early voting, declined this primary cycle relative to the last two elections, according to the latest data from the Maryland State Board of Elections.

Several reasons could explain this drop, election researchers and behavioral scientists said during a break in the ballot counting Wednesday, and the cycles can’t be measured the same way. For now, said Sam Novey, chief strategist at the University of Maryland’s Center for Democracy and Civic Engagement, it’s still too soon to call Tuesday a low-turnout election.

“There’s been such a dramatic change in voting methods over the last few elections,” Novey said. Voters have become more familiar with mailed-in ballots over the last four years, he added, which makes accounting for turnout a more arduous process.

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“You see that in this election,” Novey said, “and we see that in the fact that Marylanders are choosing to use all three methods.”

So far, turnout looks to have been lower this year. Maryland election officials sent out slightly fewer than 600,000 ballots in advance of the Tuesday primary and received about 324,000 back by the close of business that day. That doesn’t include the ballots that were postmarked yesterday and are still arriving by mail, as well as those that were dumped late into the drop boxes. Still others have been received and have yet to be scanned.

State officials reported 722,000 voters cast ballots as of Wednesday morning, or 19.7% turnout. Turnout during the last presidential primary in 2020 was 42% when all votes were counted, and 41% in 2016.

In a competition between the “candidates and the couch” on Tuesday, it’s possible the couch emerged victorious among Democrats, said Malcolm Drewery, associate professor of sociology and anthropology at Morgan State University.

“It’s not atypical in a primary” for turnout to be underwhelming, Drewery said. “People were maybe thinking it didn’t matter that much, and maybe you defer to other people who may care more about the contestants and let them figure the primary part out for you.”

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The races up and down the ballot may also have been uninspiring to voters, Drewery said. Republicans and Democrats had secured their presidential nominees weeks ago, Drewery noted, and in the U.S. Senate race, Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks and U.S. Rep. David Trone aligned on most issues. On the Republican ticket, Hogan had been projected as the likely nominee almost immediately after he entered the race, Drewery added.

But apples-to-apples comparisons are difficult.

Baltimore Democratic voters cast roughly 148,000 votes in the 2020 mayoral primary and about 133,000 in 2016. More than 65,000 votes have been cast this year, with at least another 13,000 votes to be counted beginning Thursday.

But four years ago, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, every Maryland voter was sent a mail ballot. That might have made it easier for more people to participate. In 2016, Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton were still fighting to secure their party’s nominations at the time of Maryland’s primaries, potentially driving up interest.

Senate races run on six-year cycles, making comparisons even more difficult because of different levels of voter interest in presidential and midterm election years.

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In Baltimore, the level of voter turnout clocked by the end of Tuesday night showed increased activity in areas with competitive City Council contests, including in Southeast Baltimore, Southwest Baltimore and South Baltimore. Three City Council races — in the 8th, 11th and 12th districts — are so close that they have not yet been called.

As voters handed a second term to Mayor Brandon Scott, clearing a path for a rare era of stability in City Hall, Drewery said some people may have looked to other races to express dissatisfaction with Baltimore.

“People may have been looking for more progressive change at a lower level, and we’ve seen that across the country with Republicans,” he said. “With Board of Education candidates, for example, with smaller levels, and then working their way up.”

In a majority of the precincts, though, turnout was well below average, especially on the city’s East and West sides. City election officials said election day voting was very slow and some pointed to the rain falling all afternoon across the city as a possible deterrent.

Drewery said the results could be a signal for national Democrats to start spending more time and money in Maryland before the November general election.

“They’ve been saying the same old things, that this is going to be the most important election in your lifetime,” Drewery said. “And that’s not necessarily going to do it.”

Hallie Miller covers housing for The Baltimore Banner. She's previously covered city and regional services, business and health at both The Banner and The Baltimore Sun.

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