WASHINGTON —This year has been a parade of unprecedentedevents, and the early voting in the general election is proving to be noexception.

Through Thursday, more than 78 million Americans had voted. Of thoseearly votes, more than 51 million — or approximately two-thirds —were mail ballots, according to the United States Elections Project atthe University of Florida.

That showing is shattering records in many states with days to go untilElection Day next Tuesday.

“We’ve never held an election like this before,” Ralph Watkins of theLeague of Women’s Voters Voter Service Team told Capital NewsService. “The number of applications for absentee ballots ishuge…several, several times larger than it is in a normal year.”

The historic mail-based voting numbers are largely due to COVID-19concerns, according to Natalie Scala, an associate professor and thedirector of the graduate programs in supply chain at TowsonUniversity’s College of Business and Economics.

“I think a lot of people want a safe, effective, socially distanced way tovote,” Scala said.

In addition to voting in person on Tuesday, Maryland voters can alsovote by mail, dropbox, or at early voting locations. Ballots delivered todropboxes are considered mail-in ballots, according to State Board ofElections spokesman Dave Curley.

The Maryland State Board of Elections reported Thursday that1,129,154 mail-in votes, which is approximately 67% of requested mailballots, had been returned to date.

“I think what’s nice in Maryland is that we’re not seeing the type ofinadvertent voter suppression that’s happening in other states,” Scalasaid. “I’ll pick on Ohio, for example — one dropbox in every countyright now. Same thing in Texas.”

By comparison, Maryland has set up 284 ballot dropbox locationsacross its 24 counties and county-equivalents for the 2020 generalelection as of Thursday, according to the elections board.

As a result, the return rate on ballots has been “insane,” said MichaelBayrd, the Maryland Democratic Party’s political and organizingdirector.

“Things are moving in a very high, high pace,” Bayrd said.

Bayrd also pointed out the differences in return rates from county tocounty. County return rates varied between a low of 56.1% inBaltimore County and a high of 76.7% in Kent County, according tostate elections data reported online Thursday.

While Bayrd noted that these differences may be related to howconvenient it is for a county’s residents to access their dropboxes, theLWV’s Watkins posed other theories.Smaller counties generally have fewer returned ballots than larger counties, so they may process ballots more slowly, as they have a less pressing workload, Watkins said. On the other hand, he added, smaller counties generally have fewer ballot styles, so they may be able to begin processing ballots earlier than larger counties, which generally have a multitude of ballot variations.

Garrett County, with 29,000 residents living over nearly 650 squaremiles, boasted the second-highest return rate: 76% as of Thursday.

“We’re a small county,” Garrett County Board of Elections DirectorSteven Fratz said. “But with that being said, we’re a small workforce —there’s only two people and myself in the office — but I think thecounty’s just always been close-knit. Y’know, people look out for eachother… and we were very low in COVID until recently… and I just thinkthere was a lot of push from the community to vote by mail.”

That said, there has been more of a push across Maryland for mail-invoting from Democrats than Republicans.

According to the University of Florida data, as of Thursday, 69.9% ofmail ballots returned and accepted in Maryland were from registeredDemocrats, compared to only 14.4% from registered Republicans.

This matches the overall national trend, according to Watkins.

At a national level, 50.3% of mail ballots returned and accepted werefrom registered Democrats, compared to only 25.9% from registeredRepublicans, the Elections Project reported.

“I think that is in part by the president’s disparaging remarks aboutvoting by mail,” Watkins said, referencing the myriad statements thatThe Washington Post Fact Checker’s Salvador Rizzo has dubbed“(Donald) Trump’s fusillade of falsehoods on mail voting.”

“It angers Democrats and makes Republicans distrustful of mail-inballots, and so I think that produces a change in voter behavior,”Watkins added.

Bayrd noted that the true turnout of Republican voters may notbecome apparent until Election Day itself.

“Republicans don’t traditionally turnout earlier — or they don’t takeadvantage of early voting — they vote on Election Day,” Bayrd said.

According to Scala, who has been conducting academic research onelections security for more than three years, mail-based voting isactually “quite secure” from attacks.

“It’s very distributed, so that means there’s no real centralized locationin mail-based voting,” Scala said. “There’s all these dropboxes, there’sall these mailboxes, and they’re spread out. So for something to gowrong in mail-based voting, from an attack perspective, every singlemailbox, every single dropbox needs to be compromised to have awide-scale, impactful threat. And in terms of a foreign adversary, that’snot of interest to them — it has a high risk and a low reward. So we donot anticipate a lot of issues there.”

Mail-based voting, Scala added, has not historically proved itself to beespecially susceptible to fraud.

“If something would happen, and someone tried to vote twice — or,you know, voted for, I don’t know, a dead person or something — wewould find out about it,” Scala said. “There’s a lot of checks andbalances in the voting process set up, especially in Maryland, that youwould find out about it, and then that would be resolved.”

The Maryland Democratic Party is working to combat any lingeringhesitation about voting this year. While the party has not been able todo in-person canvassing due to the pandemic, it has been activelyengaged in phone banking and sending text messages.

CNS’s attempts to reach Maryland GOP representatives through theMaryland Senate Republican Caucus, the office of Maryland SenatorMichael J. Hough and the office of Maryland House of DelegatesMinority Leader Nicholaus R. Kipke were unsuccessful.

The opening and counting of ballots began Oct. 1, but the results areto be embargoed until voting centers close on Election Day. At thatpoint, results from early voting and mail-in ballots counted up toElection Day will be released. The results from in-person Election Dayvoting will follow shortly after that.

However, “it is important to understand that, because the generalelection in Maryland is being conducted primarily by mail, a completecount of votes will not be available on Election Day,” Curley said in anemail.

While all mail-in votes need to be postmarked by next Tuesday to beaccepted; as long as they have that proper postmark and the voteroath on the return envelope is signed, mail-in ballots will be accepteduntil Nov. 13.

Time permitting, local boards of elections will notify voters who failedto sign their ballots so the voters can fix the issue, Curley said.

“After Election Day, updated results will be released each day thatballots are counted,” Curley explained. “Not all counties may countballots every day, but updates will be provided every day that ballotsare counted.”

“Counting of provisional ballots will start on the second Thursday afterthe election,” he wrote. “These results will be announced when theyare counted.”

In the weeks to come, a final count in Maryland will take time, Watkinssaid.

“We have never attempted to process such a huge volume of mail-in ballots before,” he said. “And although I’m optimistic that a lot of people are going to vote early enough that the board of elections will have processed most of those before Election Day, I still expect there’s going to be a large volume of ballots to be processed after Election Day, and we just need to be patient for those numbers to roll in.”

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