Count the smiles, and you'll know the likely winner


By Friday afternoon of The Election That Wouldn't Die, the mood had begun to turn sour. At the city's Board of Elections, where they were counting the absentee ballots, the Republicans were calling the Democrats crooks, and the Democrats were calling the Republican candidate Ellen Sauergrapes.

Everybody in the building knew what was happening, and nobody in charge would quite say it: Ellen R. Sauerbrey was running out of friendly voters. Even with the counties tightening Parris N. Glendening's lead to a thousand or so votes, even in the great big Republican sweep across the whole country, she was getting slightly left behind.

"I won't have this election stolen," she'd announced a day earlier, making claims of political irregularities. The next day, she had aides talking darkly of fraud, and challenging scores of absentee ballots for false signatures.

What made them false? Who knew? I stood behind one Republican volunteer, Saint George Crosse, as he challenged a series of signatures, claiming that the handwriting on the application form didn't match the handwriting on the ballot itself. I couldn't tell the difference. I'm no handwriting expert, but neither is Crosse. He's a fringe political player who was happily announcing to everyone:

"I prophesied nine months ago that we would have a woman governor. They said Helen Bentley, and I said, 'I don't know, but it will be a woman.' "

And now here he was, challenging one signature after another, until there were scores of them, and the process dragged on in the city, and in the various counties where the Sauerbrey people clung to any sort of hope.

"Different signatures," Crosse declared, looking at an absentee ballot and an application signed by someone named Vicky Dantoni.

"It's legitimate," said Gene Raynor, state elections chief, hovering over a long table of officials that looked like something between a crab fest and the Hanoi peace talks.

"How do you know?" said Crosse.

"Because she's an election clerk in this office," said Raynor.

The Republicans are entitled to challenge. It's the way the game is played. Even the old-time Democrats were admitting it, recalling close elections of the past where they'd issued the same cries of fraud, and the same challenges on absentee ballots or any other grounds they could find. Winners strut their stuff, and losers look for somebody to blame.

What seemed to be dooming Sauerbrey now was pure political arithmetic. By Friday afternoon, she'd cut the lead to slightly more than a thousand votes, but about 80 percent of more than 20,000 votes left to count were from Glendening's few strongholds: the city, and Montgomery and Prince George's counties, plus Baltimore County where Glendening had lost on Election Day, but not too badly.

Would the same Election Day percentages hold up in the absentee ballots? Of the 20 counties tabulated thus far, all had been within 5 percentage points of their Election Day totals.

But the process, three days past the election, seemed to be taking forever. In Montgomery County, they'd worked far into Thursday night and still hadn't gotten to the ballot counting. In Prince George's, they were talking about taking the weekend off and coming back Monday. In Baltimore County, they were counting ballots by hand because of a printer's error.

And still there was talk of challenges, of lawsuits, of the process stretching out beyond anyone's endurance.

"I see a vision," one political veteran was saying at the city's Board of Elections. "We won't have a winner for months. And in January, on Inauguration Day in Annapolis, you'll hear a voice taking the oath: 'I, William Donald Schaefer. . . .' "

Mostly, it was the Democrats laughing, and you only heard it now and then, and it was little pipsqueaks of laughter in a vast roar of Republican giddiness across the country.

For the most part, though, there was an underlying sourness, the Republicans crying foul and challenging right and left, and the Democrats riding it out.

"These people," one Democrat said, watching a series of absentee votes challenged over alleged handwriting differences, "have no more right to take away a vote than I do to vote twice. They're treading on very thin ice here. These people went out of their way to vote. It was their right to vote. These are the elderly, the infirm. . ."

"And the huddled masses yearning to travel overseas on vacation," a Republican added.

It was a rare moment of bipartisan good humor, in a week where the ballot counting and the bad feelings threatened never to end.

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