A ballot counter sorts through the mail-in ballots.

History was on the ballot in this year’s Maryland primary elections.

In a rare alignment, Maryland’s offices of the governor, the attorney general and the comptroller are all open. And in the Democratic primaries for each of those top positions, voters nominated candidates who could break the state’s long record of white, male leadership in Annapolis this November.

At the same time, Gov. Larry Hogan’s impending departure turned the Republican primary into a proxy for national GOP battles between moderate conservatives — embodied in the Hogan-backed Kelly Schulz — and adherents of former President Donald Trump — championed by state Del. Dan Cox, the party’s eventual nominee.

Contested state’s attorney races in several jurisdictions, notably Baltimore City and Baltimore County, also drew local and national interest.

With mail-in ballots still piling up after the close of in-person voting Tuesday, preliminary turnout figures have already exceeded participation in the last gubernatorial primary. According to figures published Sunday by the Maryland State Board of Elections, 24.7% of eligible Maryland voters cast their ballots this primary season, surpassing the 24.25% turnout of 2018.

“Right now it’s not on track to be the low turnout election that many feared,” said Mileah Kromer, a political science professor at Goucher College. While the primaries felt “sleepy” until about a week before election day, Kromer said, the historic nature of many races may have helped bolster turnout. Along with high-caliber candidates in the Democratic gubernatorial field and the national forces central to the GOP governor’s race, the chance to nominate the first nonwhite and women candidates for governor, attorney general and comptroller might have “offset some of the malaise,” Kromer said.

Even so, some Maryland political analysts and operatives said it’s disappointing that the bar for primary election turnout has fallen so low.

“The fact that we’re talking about the difference between 22% and 24% is fricking pathetic,” said Justin Schall, a Democratic consultant who managed Rep. Anthony Brown’s unsuccessful campaign for governor in 2014.

That such a small share of the state’s population participates in primary elections is a chief reason that the Republican Party ended up nominating a peddler of election fraud conspiracy theories, the Democratic operative said. As of Sunday, Trump-endorsed Cox had surpassed 143,000 votes, less than 15% of Maryland’s eligible Republican voters and a small fraction of the state’s population.

“When people are like, ‘How did this happen?’ it’s because [143,000] people decided the outcome of this election,” Schall said.

Still, Schall said, he was among those who had feared lower turnout this primary season, and he credited Democratic gubernatorial front-runners Wes Moore and Tom Perez with inspiring participation that has rivaled 2018. The Democratic consultant said Moore, who secured the Democratic nomination on Friday and who could become Maryland’s first Black governor this November, and Perez, who was bidding to become the first Latino nominated for governor in Maryland, may have helped get voters of color to the polls and spur a better-than-expected turnout.

In addition to Moore at the top of the Democratic ticket, the party’s nominees for attorney general, in Brown, and comptroller, in Brooke Lierman, would mark historic firsts if they’re elected in November.

Former Secretary of State John Willis pushed back on perceptions of “low turnout” and said he was never as “doom and gloom” about this year’s primary participation as some others. He pointed to the array of national issues that have been competing for the electorate’s attention in recent months, among them the post-pandemic recovery, national economic turmoil, congressional hearings on the Jan. 6 insurrection and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The share of registered Maryland Republicans and Democrats participating in gubernatorial primaries has fluctuated over the last 40 years, said Willis, who noted that these changes can be partly explained by increases in the number of registered voters for both parties over that span. A trend line is starkest for the Democratic Party, whose total registrants have ballooned by two-thirds since 1986, according to data supplied by Willis, and which hit a recent peak of nearly 50% voter participation in 1982 and fell to their lowest level in 2014, at less than a 25%. Willis, who is also an executive in residence at the University of Baltimore’s School of Public and International Affairs, said this year’s primary is likely to land “at the low end of the scale,” but stressed that it won’t be the lowest.

Considering the postponed election, an unfavorable primary date and external pressures on voters, “we may end up OK,” Willis said. “We’re not going to be sterling. We’re not going to be the ‘80s or ‘90s in terms of turnout. But, you know, we’ll be OK.”

Gubernatorial races in Maryland fall in in midterm years between presidential election cycles, timing that makes recruiting voters to the polls a perennial challenge, especially for primaries. As of Sunday, the State Board of Elections had tabulated nearly 934,000 ballots cast in this year’s primary, up nearly 62,000 from 2018.

Nikki Charlson, deputy administrator for the State Board of Elections, noted that the ballot count is only going to keep growing. The state had logged more than 296,000 mail-in ballots returned as of Sunday, almost 58% of the total volume sent out to voters. The mail-in ballot return rate in 2018 hit 70% and hasn’t been below 65% anytime in the last 12 years, Charlson said, though she said it’s unclear whether yields will hold as high with the surge in popularity of voting by mail this year.

Participation in recent gubernatorial primaries has hovered in the neighborhood of one-quarter of eligible voters. According to figures provided by Charlson and the State Board of Elections, almost 22% of eligible Maryland voters turned out in 2014, down from more than 25% in 2010 and 29.7% in 2006.

Quincey Gamble, former executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party, said that even though this year’s primary appears to be on par with 2018, he’s disappointed that more people didn’t get out to vote, especially in Baltimore. Twenty-five percent participation has been a “stubborn” threshold for the city in comparable election cycles, Gamble said, but he’d hoped residents would be more motivated to vote in response to the city’s many areas of intense need. As of Saturday, Baltimore turnout was sitting under 22%, a figure that doesn’t account for late-arriving mail-in ballots or 12 in-person precincts that were late to report.

“We continue to have so many problems that we say we want to solve, but then on election day only about a quarter or less turn out,” he said. “I don’t think that bodes well for us as a city.”

But now that Maryland’s majority party has a potentially history-making slate of candidates, Gamble said, the new challenge is in sustaining momentum from the primaries to drive a winning turnout in November — a hurdle the party wasn’t able to overcome in either 2014 or 2018.

“We’ve got the ticket now that looks and feels like Maryland,” said Gamble. “And I think it should be a very exciting moment, not just for Democrats but for Marylanders.”

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  • Baltimore Banner reporter Pamela Wood joined WYPR’s On the Record to discuss the primary gubernatorial race and where things may be headed for the general election. Listen below.