In the end, Northeast Baltimore's contested Senate race was decided yesterday in the 15 minutes it took for a computer expert from Omaha, Neb., to feed about 250 absentee ballots into a machine at the city elections board. Sen. John A. Pica Jr. won.
Only 44 votes kept Martin O'Malley from succeeding in his first try for office. The margin of victory for Mr. Pica underscored the power of Mr. O'Malley's message -- "Change Demands Commitment" -- to the 43rd District's voters. But the person who perhaps heard that message loudest was the incumbent himself.
"It was a tortuous two nights," a wide-eyed, somber Mr. Pica said as he stood in the elections board office minutes after the absentee ballot vote confirmed his victory.
"I think I've learned a lot about myself and what the voters want in the last two days," said Mr. Pica, whose Senate attendance record was attacked during the campaign. "They want an advocate. That was Martin's message. ... I'm going to mold a different personality and character."
The contest between the two men had been nip and tuck throughout election night. Initially, it appeared as though Mr. Pica had won by a razor-thin margin. Then, after a cursory count of the election machine vote tallies, Mr. O'Malley emerged as the winner, by a meager five votes. Both candidates knew the absentee votes would determine the victor.
The city's judicial race also was decided in yesterday's count of absentee ballots -- this time in favor of a challenger.
District Judge Paul A. Smith, a challenger to the three sitting Circuit Court judges seeking re-election this year, narrowly won nomination in the Democratic primary. That victory puts him on the general election ballot with the "sitting judges" -- incumbents Ellen L. Hollander, Richard T. Rombro and John C. Themelis.
In the primary, judicial candidates are listed on each party's ballot. If the same three candidates had won in each primary, the election would have been decided.
Judges Hollander and Rombro were winners in both party primaries, while Judge Themelis was a winner only in the Republican contest, according to the unofficial canvass completed about 8 last night.
Barbara A. Jackson, the city administrator of elections, said last night that she did not know the number of votes. She said copies of the results were handed out to representatives of the candidates and any interested parties, and she went home without those numbers.
According to unconfirmed reports, Judge Smith's margin of victory was 88 votes. The official tally is expected to be completed next week.
The drama of the Senate race was played out in late afternoon.
When Mr. O'Malley, a 27-year-old lawyer with a passion for Irish ballads, arrived at the elections board, he knew his vote advantage was illusory at best. His own counts from campaign workers stationed in the district's 61 precincts had him 14 votes behind.
At 4:45 p.m., election board officials ferried two locked, aluminum suitcases filled with absentee ballots from an 8-foot high walk-in vault. They opened the suitcases and handed the ballots to Michael D. Deveraux, a computer specialist, who stacked them in a special machine made by his Omaha firm that automatically scans the vote, tabulates it and reports it on a printout.
Shortly before 5 p.m., Ms. Jackson announced the results: 124 votes for Mr. Pica, 101 for Mr. O'Malley. With those figures added to the votes cast Tuesday, Mr. Pica received 5,016, to Mr. O'Malley's 4,972, according to election board figures.
The contest was over. And within minutes of the vote count, the television camera lights clicked on.
"I'm a little bit numb," Mr. O'Malley said stoically. "We're satisfied on one level. We always spoke the truth. It was a campaign of ideas. We're very heartened."
Before the interviewer could ask another question, the camera lights were turned on the tall, athletic man in a navy-blue suit being ushered into the election boards. Johnny Pica, for the previous half hour, had been sitting in his campaign treasurer's car, outside the elections board, awaiting word on the results.
As the senator entered the elections board surrounded by friends, his campaign chairman, Curt Baer, nodded toward Mr. O'Malley and whispered: "Go shake hands, go shake hands."
The two men did.
"It was a good fight," Mr. Pica said.
"It seems like you won," Mr. O'Malley said.
Mr. Pica then bounded out of the office for television interviews.
His father, John A. Pica Sr., bellowed to his son, "You think I can go to sleep now?" The elder Mr. Pica had spent most of the day with his son's attorney, George L. Russell Jr., and campaign workers who came to the elections board to oversee the opening of the absentee ballots.
Mr. O'Malley had his own troops present: his parents, three brothers, his brother-in-law and a knot of friends. "He's third generation," Barbara O'Malley said, referring to her son's political roots. Mr. O'Malley's maternal grandfather was a congressional district chairman in Indiana; his paternal grandfather was a ward leader in Pittsburgh.
By the end of the day, the four election board members had disqualified only three of the absentee ballots from the 43rd District -- the first because the voter was dead, the second because the 95-year-old voter had not properly completed the form and the third because it was blank.
In the end, Mr. O'Malley realized just how accurate the counts from his poll workers had been. He believed he was down by a dozen or so votes. He had sent campaign literature to most of the voters who asked for an absentee ballot and had hoped they would vote in his favor. But apparently not enough of them did.
When asked what he intended to do now, Mr. O'Malley, who took a day off from campaigning this summer to get married, said with a smile: "Go on a honeymoon."