State Sen. Catherine E. Pugh remained more than 2,500 votes ahead of former Mayor Sheila Dixon on Wednesday as city elections officials worked to count the final ballots in the Democratic primary for mayor.
Dixon gained 485 votes on Pugh by early evening. It was unclear how many votes remained to be tallied, and absentee ballots were still being received from overseas, with a Friday deadline to certify the results. Absentee ballots must have been postmarked by Election Day to be counted.
While Pugh declared victory based on an unofficial tally, and Dixon congratulated her opponent on Election Day, complaints about irregularities have surfaced since then. A team of activists aligned with Dixon is alleging problems at some polling places on Election Day and is seeking an investigation by the state prosecutor.
After the laborious counting of absentee and provisional ballots had ended for the day Wednesday, Dixon said she was waiting to see the final results and continued to question whether irregularities or fraud had affected the outcome of the race. Dixon has questioned Pugh's campaign efforts during early voting.
"It's clear I beat her on Election Day," Dixon said. "If some of those actions did not take place in early voting, it might be a whole different scenario."
Dixon, who must decide in the coming days whether to request a recount, said she was waiting to see a precinct-by-precinct breakdown of the results, which might help her campaign spot unusual voting patterns.
Kevin Gillogly, a Pugh representative, said the senator is confident she will be officially declared the winner, and the campaign has dismissed Dixon's allegations of wrongdoing. The Democratic nominee would face Republican Alan Walden in the November election; the heavily Democratic city has for decades chosen a mayor from that party.
"After this process is done, we fully expect we will continue to be ahead and that Catherine Pugh will be the Democratic nominee for mayor," Gillogly said.
Gene Raynor, a longtime director of the city's Board of Elections, said a recount was unlikely to change the outcome of the election. But he said such a request from Dixon was likely, given the number of allegations about irregularities, including computer drives of voting results being misplaced and voters being wrongly turned away on Election Day.
A Baltimore circuit judge extended voting hours at four polling locations in Baltimore on Election Day because of delays when they opened.
With most precincts reporting on election night, Pugh had 37 percent of the vote, with about 3,000 votes more than Dixon, who had 34 percent. They were the top two vote-getters in a crowded field.
"If it were me and I had the money, I'd do a recount," said Raynor, who voted for Councilman Carl Stokes for mayor.
But John T. Willis, a professor of public policy and government at the University of Baltimore, said that while it is not unusual for a trailing candidate to narrow the gap with absentee and provisional ballots, winning on a recount is far from common.
Recounts are rare in Maryland, and successful ones even more so. Donna Duncan, assistant administrator at the State Board of Elections, said she cannot recall a single time in her four decades there that an election night result has been reversed by recount.
One reason might be that Maryland's rules regarding the cost of a recount put the burden on the challenger in most cases.
A losing candidate is entitled to a recount at government expense only if the margin is 0.1 percent or less. Otherwise, the loser must bear the cost unless the recount is successful or reduces the winner's count by at least 2 percent of the total vote, said Nikki Baines Charlson, deputy director of the state board.
The challenger must put up a bond to cover the estimated cost of the recount. That cost can vary, depending on the extent of the recount. The challenger can seek an expensive citywide count or narrow the request to a few precincts or just to absentee ballots, Charlson said.
The last recount Charlson or Duncan could recall was in a delegate race in Anne Arundel County in 2006. In that contest, incumbent Democrat Joan Cadden trailed Republican Don Dwyer by 28 votes in the official count.
Cadden sought a recount of about 3,000 paper absentee and provisional ballots and gained three votes, to lose by 25. The cost of that recount was estimated at $5,000, paid by the state and county because Cadden came within 0.1 percent.
In 2002, when then-House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., a Democrat, lost to Republican LeRoy Myers in an upset by 71 votes, he sought a recount. Because the margin was more than 0.1 percent, Taylor had to post a $10,000 bond, Duncan said. Myers gained 5 votes in the recount, and Taylor had to foot the bill.
Candidates may use campaign funds to cover the cost of a recount.
While community activists aligned with Dixon alleged widespread irregularities in last week's primary, state election officials expressed little concern.
"There's no such thing as a perfect election," Charlson said. "Last week was pretty good."
Charlson said that seven of the eight missing thumb drives — each representing a precinct's votes — were eventually located. The other one has not been found, but officials were able to count that precinct by going to the original paper ballots. Charlson said the information on the drives is encrypted and cannot be altered.
The ability to create a physical, verifiable trail is one of the reasons the General Assembly decided to switch from the state's old touch-screen system to one that uses optical scanners to count paper ballots.
Charlson said there were few system failures last week and that those were quickly remedied.
Activists complained that some city precincts failed to open on time on Election Day, but Charlson said that is not unusual. She said some polling locations were locked when election judges arrived, while there were equipment problems at others that led to delays in opening the doors. At others, judges did not show up as scheduled.
The count began Wednesday morning with a call to order, then a process akin to an assembly line got underway.
A team of four officials sitting at a long table checked through voting packets gathered in plastic Postal Service trays, making sure the ballots were submitted by an eligible voter. A lot of provisional ballots come from independent voters who cannot vote in most Maryland primary races, said Armstead B.C. Jones, the city's elections director.
The packets were passed back to a team of 10 other workers arrayed along other tables, who slit open the packets and unfolded the ballots within and laid them in piles.
Four officials then fed those into a machine that straightens the stacks, preparing them to be fed into a counting machine. The machine, operated by an election board staff member, electronically tabulated the results.
A pair of officials kept the papers moving. Jones presided over the operation. He said it would take several hours to complete.
A group which calls itself Voters Organized for the Integrity of City Elections held a rally Tuesday outside the city Board of Elections office to ask the governor's office to intervene.
Hassan Giordano, one of the group's leaders, said a representative from Republican Gov. Larry Hogan's office informed him late Tuesday night that the governor would not get involved.
"They don't want to get involved in our mess," Giordano said. "They did say we had enough information to make them leery."
The governor's office did not say whether it would get involved but reaffirmed Hogan's commitment to fair elections.
The state prosecutor's office says it only opens an investigation if it receives credible evidence of a criminal violation. Officials declined to comment on this case, as is their policy.
Willis, a former Maryland secretary of state, said he visited many polling places in the city last week and saw nothing amiss.
"The problems that were experienced were not atypical for a large urban jurisdiction," he said. "The biggest complaint I heard about was the fact that the 'I voted' stickers didn't show up until later in the day."
Baltimore Sun reporter Doug Donovan contributed to this article.