by MEGHA RAJAGOPALAN, Capital News Service
GLEN BURNIE, Md. - Planning to stay up late on election night to see if your candidate won? You might want to brew a few extra pots of coffee - enough even to last a few days.
What with an unusually large number of absentee ballots to count, tight races at the top of the ticket, and suspect voting machines, politicians and elections officials alike are warning that Tuesday night may not bring the definitive results - and the respite from politics - that voters had been anticipating.
"Given the number of absentee ballots, it's unlikely that we'll know the results of the election Tuesday night, but it's not impossible," said Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich. "In close races, like some in the General Assembly, you may not know the results right away."
Ehrlich made his prediction while he and his wife cast absentee ballots at the Anne Arundel County board of elections office here. The governor has been urging Marylanders to cast absentee ballots instead of going to the polls because he doesn't trust the state's new electronic voting system.
Top candidates from the other party have been saying much the same thing, including Ehrlich's Democratic opponent, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley. Both candidates say they fear a repeat of the mess on the Sept. 14 primary, when both computer and human errors caused polls to stay open an hour longer in some places and the results of one or two elections to be delayed by as much as a week.
There have been 175,000 requests for absentee ballots, and voting officials expect they will take days to count. Thus in contests where absentee ballots are crucial to the outcome, final results will take that much longer.
To make matters worse, many predict that the bad experience in the primary and the probability of close races make it more likely that candidates will contest election results in court.
It isn't unlike another Maryland election twelve years ago, in which Democrat Parris N. Glendening defeated his Republican opponent, Ellen R. Sauerbrey, by less than 6,000 votes. It took two weeks to determine the winner of that tight race, and even after the winner was declared, a legal battle over charges of fraud dragged on until days before Glendening's inauguration in January.
"It was absolutely agonizing," Glendening recalled. "I would not wish that on anyone in the world."
This time around, elections officials are predicting things may be even worse.
"1994 was a piece of cake compared to what this will be," said Barbara Fisher, director of the Anne Arundel County Board of Elections.
Byron L. Warnken, who worked on Sauerbrey's legal team in 1994, said elections have to be extremely close - with the candidates a small fraction of a percentage point apart in votes - to prove that fraud pushed the results one way or the other.
But this year, candidates in a close election could challenge results, arguing that an imperfect system swung them the wrong way, said Warnken, a law professor at the University of Baltimore.
"In 1994, although there were irregularities, they weren't compounded by 'the system is broke,'" Warnken said.
Glendening issued a similar warning. "Expect challenges," he said.
Both Ehrlich and O'Malley have assembled legal teams to prepare for challenges to the results. The two candidates are now neck in neck, with a recent Baltimore Sun poll putting them only a point apart.
Severn Miller, general counsel for Ehrlich's reelection campaign, said the governor's legal team aims to make sure the election is "run fairly and by the book."
While the gubernatorial candidates are preparing for possible legal battles, county elections officials are bracing themselves for long hours counting a flood of absentee ballots.
"We have over 30,000 [absentee ballot requests] alone in our county," said Jacqueline McDaniel, director of the Baltimore County board of elections. "There's an unusual amount for every county in the state of Maryland-- very much so. The election could hinge on absentee ballots."
Board of election workers in each county must open each absentee ballot by hand, starting the Thursday after the election. State law mandates that each ballot must be read by a Democrat and a Republican, so the workers operate in teams of two.
After that, the counts have to be approved by the state board. After all absentee ballots are counted, the county boards must count provisional ballots, and after that, absentee ballots that arrived after Election Day must be counted.
"In the best of times, the system is not equipped to handle this many absentee ballots," Glendening said.
Rick Abbruzzese, a spokesman for O'Malley, said he is optimistic that the margin of votes between the two candidates will be large enough that most absentee ballots will not need to be counted to determine a winner.
"None of the polls really matter," he said. "Right now, it's all about turn-out. It's about each party getting their base of support out to vote on election day."
Candidates say they can't speculate on how long it will take to know the election's victors. But they say they are prepared for the worst. "You're going to see people walking around Annapolis with the jitters, going in and out of coffee shops," Glendening predicted. "For a lot of political junkies, there's a long, long week ahead."