No matter which way Tuesday's electoral wind blows, Howard County will see its political landscape transformed, with a new county executive, a majority of new faces on the County Council and an expanded school board once the votes are counted.
The election -- which features as its marquee contest the county executive battle between Republican Christopher J. Merdon, 35, and Democrat Ken Ulman, 32 -- is likely to mark a generational shift in the county's top elected office.
Either of the two County Council members, who are vying for the seat with independent C. Stephen Wallis, 56, would represent a break with the county's nearly two-decade history of electing career civil servants to the executive's job.
The change on what is now a Democratic-controlled County Council also could be profound because four of the five incumbents -- two from each party -- did not seek re-election. Women are running for four of the seats on what is now an all-male council.
In a county where growth and change have been major campaign issues, the prospect of such top-to-bottom turnover makes some long-serving officials pensive.
"What it means for the county will depend on how quickly the executive can clear away the campaign rhetoric and get ready for the long haul of power-sharing with the council -- recognizing the restraints on power," said Mary C. Lorsung, the last woman to serve on the council, from 1994-2002.
Arguments over development, including how central Columbia should be made over, comprehensive rezoning and whether the county has enough controls on redevelopment in older residential and commercial corridors, have been the heart of the Ulman-Merdon campaign.
But C. Vernon Gray, a former five-term councilman, cautioned that the growth issue may fade once the election is over because all of the large parcels of developable land in Howard are spoken for. The emphasis may shift to improving infrastructure, he said, and people will come together on the decades-old goal of making central Columbia more of a downtown.
First, of course, the votes must be counted.
Election administrator Betty L. Nordaas said 11,778 absentee ballots had been issued by Friday morning, and voters can continue to get them in person, though not by mail. She expects the absentee votes will exceed 12,000.
That's more than enough votes to decide close races -- and delay a final tally in such races. Nordaas said 5,260 ballots went to Republicans, 5,085 to Democrats, and 1,433 to unaffiliated voters.
Despite the heightened demand for absentee ballots, Nordaas said, the Howard board never ran out. The county also has enough poll judges and functioning electronic voting machines, she said. The polls will be open between 7 a.m. and 8 p.m.
She would not hazard a guess on turnout, however, partly because of the heavy demand for absentee ballots.
In 2002, the general election turnout in Howard was 68.6 percent of registered voters, according to state election figures. That is far higher than the 25 percent in the Sept. 12 primary this year.
Democratic Party Chairman Michael MacPherson said he is hoping for better than the 71 percent turnout his party had four years ago. Republicans turned out 73 percent.
Brian Harlin, the local GOP chairman, said, "I think you've got a lot of good races. You're probably going to get a lot of people out [to vote]."
Nordaas said the count of absentee ballots will begin Nov. 13, but won't be completed until that Friday. The board also must tally provisional ballots -- those issued to voters who appear but who encounter voting difficulties.
MacPherson said Democrats are prepared for any eventuality at the polls.
"We're concerned, and we have in place a voter protection program," he said, with lawyers on call.
Harlin said Republicans are also prepared. Joan Becker, a central committee member, said the GOP will have 25 attorneys and other volunteers, though some may go outside Howard County.
"The purpose is to observe and make sure all the election laws are complied with and no one is disenfranchised," she said.
Tuesday's election could bring about a change in the county's General Assembly delegation, especially if Democrat James N. Robey defeats incumbent state Sen. Sandra B. Schrader in District 13, or if Republicans make gains in that district or in District 12, which stretches from west Columbia through southwestern Baltimore County.
In District 12, the incumbents are all Democrats. They include state Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, and Dels. Steven J. DeBoy Sr., James E. Malone Jr. in the 12A portion of the district and Del. Elizabeth Bobo in her single-member 12B portion.
Republicans hope to change that. Rick Martel is running for state Senate, and Joe Hooe and Albert Nalley for delegate in 12A, with Christopher Feldwick running against Bobo in 12B.
In addition to the Senate race in District 13, Republicans Mary Beth Tung, Loretta Gaffney and the Rev. Rick Bowers are running for delegate in that district against incumbent Democrats Frank S. Turner, Shane E. Pendergrass and County Councilman Guy Guzzone, who is seeking a delegate seat.
In District 9A, which covers the western county, Republican state Sen. Allan H. Kittleman is seeking election after his appointment two years ago to fill out his late father's term. Richard Corkran is his Democratic opponent. In that district, Howard voters choose two delegates, and Republicans have incumbents Gail H. Bates and Warren E. Miller running against one Democrat, David "Oz" Osmundson.
The campaign for County Council, meanwhile, includes a number of female candidates -- in both parties -- seeking to fill seats that all but one of the male councilman is leaving.
In District 1, covering Ellicott City and Elkridge, Democrat Courtney Watson is running against Republican Tony Salazar. In east Columbia and Jessup's District 2, Republican Gina Ellrich is competing against incumbent Democrat Calvin Ball.
District 3, covering the southeastern county, features a contest between Democrat Jen Terrasa and Republican Donna Thewes. And west Columbia-Fulton's District 4 has Mary Kay Sigaty, a Democrat, facing Tom D'Asto, a Republican.
The western county's District 5 Republican Greg Fox is running against Democrat Don Dunn.
"The races we're watching [locally] more closely are Districts 2 and 3," Harlin said. "It's going to be a very exciting night, I can tell you that."
Republicans have a clear edge in District 5, but Democrats are hoping to sustain a council majority by keeping their traditional strongholds in the eastern county and Columbia.
Voters also must choose five of 10 school board candidates for the new seven-member board, though two current members, Joshua M. Kaufman and Patricia S. Gordon, are running.
The other candidates are former board member Sandra H. French, Frank Aquino, Larry Cohen, Allen Dyer, Ellen Flynn Giles, Roger L. Lerner, Janet Siddiqui and Di Zou.
State's Attorney Tim McCrone is unopposed, but there are lively races for two Circuit Court judgeships, for sheriff and for the other courthouse offices.
Appointed sitting judges Louis A. Becker and Richard S. Bernhardt are trying to win 15-year terms by fending off a challenge from David A. Titman, who campaigned on his pledge not to accept donations from lawyers.
In the sheriff's race, Democrat James F. Fitzgerald is running against Republican Timothy Galt. Incumbent Sheriff Charles "Chuck" Cave lost the Democratic primary, but switched back to the Republican Party and is waging a write-in campaign.
Voters also must vote on three local charter changes. Two are technical, but the third would give county fire and police unions binding arbitration, while prohibiting the right to strike.
Now, a labor issue is submitted to an arbitrator, who makes a recommendation that the county executive can adopt or ignore.