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Staff writer

More than 12 percent of the eligible voters in Charles County voted early over the past week, far more than in recent elections when the option was first available but not a surprising total given the traditional difference between turnout for presidential and midterm elections, officials said.

A total of 11,987 Charles County residents voted early 12.27 percent of the county’s 97,687 eligible voters.

After 2,087 and 1,340 cast ballots during the first two days of early voting, which began Oct. 27, the period resumed after a hiatus for Superstorm Sandy Wednesday and turnout increased each day, from 2,792 to 2,800 before culminating Friday with 2,968 voters, more than 3 percent of those eligible in Charles.

Early voting lines hundreds deep wrapped constantly around the Charles County Board of Elections in La Plata. The turnout far outstripped that of the 2010 gubernatorial election, the first general election for which early voting was an option in Maryland, when 5,127 county residents voted early, 5.7 percent of those eligible.

But turnout is generally 10 to 20 percent higher for a presidential election, Charles County Elections Director Tracy Dickerson said. In Charles County, 80.57 percent of eligible voters voted in the 2008 presidential election, versus 52.57 percent in the 2010 gubernatorial election.

“You can’t compare a local year to a presidential year, for one,” Dickerson said. “This turnout has been absolutely awesome. Lines on Election Day are a good thing."

Predictably, turnout was even lower in the last two primary elections — 1,962 voted early in the 2010 primary, and 1,645 did so in March, 2.2 and 2.13 percent of the county's eligible voters, respectively.

Turnout was way up statewide, as well, with more than 430,570 heading to the polls early, 11.65 percent of the state’s eligible voters. Two years ago, 219,601 voted early in the general election for a turnout of 6.33 percent.

“It was definitely well utilized,” said Ross Goldstein, deputy administrator at the Maryland Board of Elections. “I think it was close to what we thought it was going to be. There were some very long lines, but on the whole, we were projecting about 10 to 12 percent turnout, and that’s what we had.”

Initially slated to end Thursday, the early voting period was extended through Friday due to Superstorm Sandy, which shut down early voting statewide Monday and Tuesday. Early voting hours also were expanded to make up for the lost time.

Dickerson said she initially attributed the high turnout during the first couple of days of early voting to an eagerness to beat the storm to the polls, “but then after the storm, the lines did not stop from the time we opened to the time we closed, so it’s just a presidential year.”

There was some initial worry that the extension and expanded hours would strip election officials of the time needed to adequately prepare for Election Day, but Goldstein said it didn’t become a major problem.

“It definitely posed some challenges, but we’re right on schedule,” he said Monday.

The extended early voting period required Dickerson and her staff to push their prep back a day into Sunday, but she preferred that to the possibility of some people being unable to vote.

“I’d rather have anybody who wants to vote [be able to] vote,” she said.

Democrats, who in Charles County enjoy a more than 2-to-1 voter registration advantage over Republicans, made up more than 72 percent of the county’s early voters. Of Democrats, 15.5 percent voted early in Charles County; 8.3 percent of Republicans did so. The county’s 15,712 unaffiliated voters were even less enthusiastic, with 7.4 percent casting early ballots.

Nearly 60 percent of the county’s early voters were women. Of the 7,170 women who voted early, 3,520 were between 45 and 65, and another 2,214 were between 25 and 44.

Half of the 4,815 men who voted early in Charles were between 45 and 65, while another 1,203 were between 25 and 44, according to statistics from the county board.

Goldstein attributed the boost in turnout primarily to it being a presidential versus gubernatorial election, but he said another factor is voters’ growing awareness of and familiarity with the option to vote early.

“Nationally, if you talk to people who study this, the longer states have early voting, the more people that will utilize it, so I definitely think that’s a factor,” he said.

The presence of seven ballot questions — including four high profile items concerning same-sex marriage, gambling, in-state tuition rates for illegal immigrants and congressional redistricting — also likely drew more people to the polls than usual, St. Mary’s College of Maryland political science professor Todd Eberly said.

“That is a rarity in Maryland politics,” he added. “There is no doubt that got people excited to vote.”

Despite the high turnout among early voters, it remains unclear whether the option boosts overall turnout and is thus worth the extra cost, Eberly said.

“The numbers are great. We clearly have many more people taking advantage of early voting than two years ago, which isn’t surprising since when early voting first starts, people aren’t accustomed to it,” he said. “As they get used to it, they enjoy the convenience of it, but the more important question is, ‘does it increase turnout?’ and as we look around at other states that have early voting, it looks like all it does is cannibalize people who would have voted on Election Day.”

On Tuesday morning, Dickerson said turnout at polling locations countywide resembled that of the 2008 election — a “mad rush” in the morning before tapering out and holding steady throughout the day.

“They had lines before they ever opened,” she said. “It was like seeing early voting all over again.”