- Associated Press - Friday, April 22, 2016

A record-high number of Marylanders cast early ballots in the state’s presidential primary election, an indication that people are growing more comfortable with early voting, a State Board of Elections spokeswoman said Friday.

Nearly 258,000 people, or about 7.5 percent of registered Democrats and Republicans, voted during the eight-day period that ended Thursday, according to unofficial results posted on the board’s website. The rest of the state’s 3.4 million eligible voters can cast ballots Tuesday.

The figures compare with early voter turnouts of about 142,000, or 4.2 percent, in the 2014 primary and about 76,000, or 2.4 percent in 2012, when there were just six days of early voting. Maryland introduced early voting in 2010, when primary early voter turnout was 2.4 percent.

“Early voting has certainly gained popularity,” board spokeswoman Donna Duncan said. “We’re hoping that the voters are just becoming more familiar with the process being available to Maryland voters.”

The figures are encouraging, but not necessarily predictive of Tuesday’s turnout, said John Willis, a University of Baltimore professor of government and public policy. He said Maryland hasn’t offered early voting long enough to establish a reliable gauge.

“We still don’t know what the normal pattern is going to be,” he said.

In both 2012 and 2014, the combined election-day and early voter turnout was 21 percent.

Thirty-seven states and the District of Columbia allow people to vote early, either in person or by mail, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures’ website. In states with long-established early voting, about one-third of ballots are cast by methods other than traditional, precinct-based voting, the organization reported in a 2011 newsletter.

The Democratic early voter turnout was 9.1 percent compared with 6.7 percent for Republicans, the elections board reported. Willis said the Republican numbers were unexpectedly low, possibly because the GOP ballot lacks a high-profile, statewide contest like the one between Democratic U.S. representatives Donna Edwards and Chris Van Hollen to fill Barbara Mikulski’s U.S. Senate seat.

About 1,900 voters registered at early voting centers and about 2,000 changed their voter addresses, the elections board reported. This was the first time Maryland has offered those services during early voting.

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