After 19.5 hours of reviewing ballots, more than 20 official challenges and numerous questions about signatures and postmarks, Annapolis voters still did not know who their next mayor would be when elections officials called it quits at 4:35 a.m. Friday after a marathon meeting.

The Annapolis Board of Canvassers will resume their meeting at noon Friday, when they'll review more than 100 provisional ballots that were cast on Election Day on Tuesday.

Heading into that meeting, Republican mayoral candidate Mike Pantelides held on to a 50-vote lead over incumbent Democrat Josh Cohen.

Pantelides' lead was whittled from 84 votes to 50 as officials fixed an incorrect report from Tuesday, counted votes from a machine that didn't report Tuesday and tallied two rounds of absentee ballots.

The elections canvass started at 9 a.m. on Thursday and stretched into the wee hours of Friday morning.

The day alternated between the drama of attorneys debating law and the tedium of opening hundreds of envelopes. The first votes weren't tallied until just before 2 a.m. on Friday.

As of 4:35 a.m. Friday, Pantelides had 3,897 votes to Cohen's 3,847 votes.

Most of the day and night was spent discussing the validity of the absentee ballots. More than 20 challenges were filed, including against ballots that were accepted with a questionable signature or without a postmark -- many in the latter category that were hand-delivered to City Hall.

The Pantelides campaign sought to disqualify as many ballots as possible and lodged a blanket challenge to every single absentee ballot on the grounds of multiple alleged election law violations, including a failure of elections officials to provided a list of absentee ballot requests before Election Day.

The Cohen campaign, needing to make up ground, sought to have as many votes counted as possible.

"We're on the side of each voter that cast a ballot, count it," said Jonathan Kagan, one of the lawyers for Cohen's campaign.

Challenged ballots were sealed in envelopes that were labeled and signed by members of the Board of Canvassers, in the event the election results end up in court.

Cohen did not attend the canvass, while Pantelides attended for several hours. 

The two men are vying to lead the 38,000 residents in Maryland's historic capital city.

Though Cohen was the incumbent in a majority-Democratic city, Pantelides challenged the mayor on his decisions to push a new vision plan for downtown's City Dock, lay off city employees, raise water rates and cut back trash pickup to once a week. Pantelides said he'd bring a more business-like mentality to City Hall.

Cohen, meanwhile, has promoted his experience and ability to make tough decisions. He touted turning around the city government's finances, which were in such poor shape that the city had to take out short-term loans to stay afloat. The short-term borrowing was ended this year.

Cohen, 40, said Pantelides, 30, may have a bright future in politics but is too inexperienced to lead Annapolis now.

Attorneys for both campaigns kept a close watch on the process in the cold, musty old city recreation center. Both sides said a court challenge is likely.

"We've got our challenge forms ready," Kagan said.

The Pantelides campaign also was laying the groundwork for legal action, with lawyer Timothy Murnane at times citing case law to the three-member Board of Canvassers.

Throughout the canvass, Board of Canvassers sorted absentee ballots into five boxes: accepted, rejected, accepted but challenged, rejected but challenged, and set aside for further review.

The challenged ballots were then further separated by the type of challenge.

The long, tense day took its toll on the Board of Canvassers, all unpaid volunteers. At one point in the evening, Chairman Michael Parmele called for a brief recess "if for no other reason than to tell my wife I'm still alive."

While the attorneys and campaign managers remained throughout the day, the rest of the audience waxed and waned as the hours wore on. Several elected officials and a few unsuccessful candidates were among those who stopped by.

Cohen's mother and Pantelides' father were among the most alert observers of the meeting.

After night fell, the crowd swelled to several dozen, who sat on squeaky folding chairs. Audience members grew impatient, at times shouting for the board to tally the accepted ballots.

Parmele implored them to stay calm: "Please understand the mountain we're under. ... Yelling at us for whatever reason is not necessary," he said.

Most of the challenges and questions were raised by lawyers. Annapolis resident Meg Moffat was the only member of the public to challenge ballots.

Moffat, who said she works in marketing, said she felt it was important to ensure that all elections laws are followed. Her biggest concern was absentee ballots that were not postmarked.

"We have an elections body that's not following the code," Moffat said. She said she's not a formal part of either campaign but is "concerned about the direction our city is going" and favored one candidate. She declined to say who.

Despite the frustrations of the day, Moffat said the event was "a real education" and gave her some hope.

"It's inspiring that people are trying to make it work," she said.

Joe Cluster, the new director of the Maryland Republican Party, said he hoped Pantelides would maintain his lead through the absentee count.

"This is a huge win if we can hold onto it," Cluster said, noting that Democrats have a 2-to-1 edge in registration over Republicans in Annapolis. One of the state's most powerful Democrats, House Speaker Michael E. Busch, lives in Annapolis.

"If we can win in Mike Busch's Annapolis district, we can win anywhere in the state," Cluster said.

Cluster said the Maryland Republican Party would support any legal challenge brought by Pantelides.

The next mayor of Annapolis will preside over a City Council dominated by Democrats. Absentee ballots were not expected to change the outcome of the races for aldermen, which ended with seven Democrats and one Republican winning.

As Parmele recessed the meeting after 19.5 hours and coffee and doughnuts were brought in, Cohen attorney Eric Lipsetts publicly praised the Board of Canvassers for their diligence, and the few dozen observers and lawyers from both campaigns broke into applause.

pwood@baltsun.com

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