Board upholds mayoral election decision


Mount Airy's Board of Elections reaffirmed yesterday its decision to award last week's mayoral election to incumbent Gerald R. Johnson, despite discarded ballots containing the last name of write-in candidate James S. Holt.

But the decision has exacerbated discontent over election results. Town resident Michael Boyer said he planned to file suit today or tomorrow in Circuit Court asking for an injunction to prevent Johnson from taking office Monday and for all ballots containing the name "Holt" to be counted as votes for James S. Holt.

Boyer is spokesman for residents who believe Holt received more votes than Johnson in the contest May 6 but lost because hundreds of his supporters wrote only his last name on their ballots.

"Voting is probably the most important right in a democracy, and you don't want to throw away that opportunity," Boyer said yesterday. "The mayor of a town is just as important as the president or a governor, and the people of this town feel we want Jim Holt handling our money."

Officially, Johnson defeated Holt 492 votes to 311. Election officials have said they are not sure all 259 discarded votes contain the defeated candidate's last name. They have no plans to re-examine votes unless ordered to by a judge, said George Woodfield, chairman of the Board of Elections.

Holt supporters say all discarded ballots contain their candidate's name and that the result should be overturned.

Election officials had told Holt ahead of time that they would accept six variations of his name but not his last name only, because six other Holts are registered voters in Mount Airy. Holt, who has not contested the result, deemed the arrangement fair.

But his supporters say the board did nothing to inform voters of write-in procedures.

Board members deferred comment yesterday to a general statement, which said, "The Board regrets the apparent confusion that occurred, which was due in no small part to erroneous advice in the local press. Finally, the Board appreciates Mr. Holt's graciousness in accepting the result as announced."

Election officials and angry voters have pinned blame for the confusion on an article May 2 in the Mount Airy Gazette that quoted a political scientist saying ballots containing just Holt's last name would do.

Holt continues to say he won't contest the election but won't stop his supporters from doing so. He would serve as mayor if the results were overturned, he said. Johnson has said he will consider himself mayor until he is told otherwise.

The town's charter includes no specific language addressing procedures for write-in voting or for contesting elections. In the absence of such governing language, a judge will have to determine voter intent, Boyer said.

Election officials have said they were trying to be fair, noting that Johnson would have a case to dispute the election if they had counted ballots containing only Holt's last name.

The Board of Elections acted properly because it advised Holt of election conditions well in advance and told him he would be responsible for informing supporters how to vote correctly, said Town Attorney Richard C. Murray.

With six other Holts in town, officials cannot determine that each voter intended to select James Holt, Murray said.

The board statement pointed out that because the town used only one voting place, Holt was able to meet most voters and tell them how to write in his name. Holt spent most of the day doing that.

Murray said he couldn't find much case law addressing disputes over write-in votes though he did note a 1995 decision from Montana that said ballots containing only a last name did not demonstrate clear voter intent.

Maryland election law says write-in votes must contain at least the candidate's first initial to be counted, but state and county election boards have no jurisdiction over the Mount Airy election.

Maryland case law indicates that local boards must determine voter intent for each ballot and not allow minor errors to interfere, said Boyer's attorney, J. Brooks Leahy.

"I'm confident that the board will see the error of its ways once this goes before a judge," Boyer said.

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