Parties Squabble Over Significance of Absentee Ballot Count

Democratic strategist David Sloan
David Sloan, head of the coordinated campaign for the Maryland Democratic Party

Maryland Democrats on Thursday touted new statistics showing a surge in applications for absentee ballots among Democrats.

The campaign of Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) dismissed the significance of those figures, countering that the number of Democrats returning absentee ballots is actually down from four years ago.

Could both sides have a point?

Democrats in Maryland have been eager to suggest that a “blue wave” is coming, fueled by widespread anger toward President Trump and normal patterns of voter behavior in midterm elections. But recent public polls on the gubernatorial election have shown little evidence of the Democratic surge, with Hogan defying political gravity and leading former NAACP president Benjamin T. Jealous (D) by roughly 20 points.

Optimistic Maryland Democrats have argued that polls are missing new and newly fired-up voters, pointing to the 26 percent increase in Democratic turnout in the June primaries compared to 2014 and overall Democratic energy across the country.

“Polls are only as good as their ability to reflect the electorate on Election Day,” Travis Tazelaar, Jealous’ campaign manager, said in a conference call with reporters.

Democrats said Thursday that Board of Elections statistics from two days earlier – four full weeks before Election Day – showed 45,543 Democrats had applied for absentee ballots compared to 24,831 Republicans and nonaffiliated voters seeking absentee ballots. At the same time four years ago, when Hogan upset then-Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown (D), 21,700 Democrats had sought absentee ballots compared to 14,260 Republicans and independents.

A significant portion of those Democrats seeking absentee ballots this election cycle, party officials said, are women, infrequent voters and newer voters.

“I’m buoyed by these numbers in a very big way,” Tazelaar said, characterizing them as “confirmation of the blue wave.”

But Hogan’s campaign manager, Jim Barnett, said the numbers the Democrats are highlighting are essentially meaningless.

“Absentee ballot requests actually do not matter,” Barnett said in a memo that the campaign released minutes after the Democrats’ conference call. “What matters is absentee ballot returns — these are actual votes cast. By that measure, the Democrat share has fallen dramatically from 2014 at this same point in time. In 2014, Democratic share of returns was 75 percent. This year, it is only 58 percent.”

What’s more, Barnett suggested, the number of Democrats seeking absentee ballots could be inflated by the fact that they were able to request the ballots for the general election when they voted in the primary 3 ½ months ago.

Voters have until Oct. 30 to apply for absentee ballots. They must be mailed by Election Day, Nov. 6.

Hogan’s elevated poll standing has confounded Democrats, but even if there is an enlarged Democratic turnout next month, it may not accrue sufficiently to Jealous’ benefit. Just as significant as the head-to-head matchups between Hogan and Jealous is Hogan’s popularity with Democratic voters: in some polls, the governor has been racking up 35 percent of the Democratic vote.

So while enhanced Democratic turnout may help Democrats in downballot races where the candidates are not as well known as the top of the ticket and partisan norms may take hold, it may not help Jealous if Hogan maintains a third or more of the Democratic vote.

Tazelaar suggested Hogan’s approval ratings may not translate into votes.

“Let’s not use popularity as a barometer for how people are going to vote,” he said.

David Sloan, director of the Maryland Democratic Party’s coordinated campaign, said many voters are just being introduced to Jealous, both through his own campaign and through Democratic candidates’ turnout efforts across the state.

“The more more of the campaigns do their jobs, the more voters will get to know and vote for Ben Jealous,” Sloan said.

jkurtz@marylandmatters.org

Josh Kurtz
Co-founder and Editor Josh Kurtz is the leading chronicler of Maryland politics and government. He began covering the State House in 1995 for The Gazette newspapers, and has been writing about state and local politics ever since. He later became an editor at Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, and spent eight years at E&E News, an online subscription-only publisher of news websites covering energy and environmental issues. For seven of those years, he led a staff of 20 reporters at E&E Daily, which covers energy and environmental policy on Capitol Hill and in national politics. For 6 1/2 years he wrote a weekly column on state politics for Center Maryland and has written for several other Maryland publications as well. Kurtz has given speeches and appeared on TV and radio shows about Maryland politics through the years.

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