Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is pinning his second-term hopes on the counting of 130,000 absentee ballots that have already been returned and 60,000 more that were requested and may be on their way to local election boards.
"We will count the votes; we will count all the votes," Ehrlich, a Republican, said early this morning as his Democratic opponent, Mayor Martin O'Malley, claimed victory at a gathering a few blocks away.
Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele also refused to concede his race for a U.S. Senate to Democratic Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin despite Cardin's overwhelming lead, saying that he, too, wanted to wait for the counting of the absentee votes, which will begin tomorrow morning.
Other races, including several for the General Assembly and for Anne Arundel County executive, appeared close enough to be affected by the absentee votes.
But the odds seemed long that the absentee ballots would give either Ehrlich, who encouraged supporters to vote by absentee ballot, or Steele a victory.
As of shortly after 1 this morning, O'Malley had about a 100,000-vote lead over Ehrlich, and Cardin had an even greater lead over Steele, with some precincts in heavily Democratic jurisdictions yet to report.
About 192,000 absentee ballots were requested for yesterday's election. If all were returned and were filled out properly, Ehrlich would have to get three out of every four absentee votes to catch O'Malley.
With Cardin's lead of 135,000, Steele would have get to get four out of every five absentee ballots.
Local elections boards will start counting absentee ballots at 10 a.m. tomorrow. Several jurisdictions are prepared to continue counting Friday - when the Veterans Day holiday is observed - and through the weekend.
. Ballots had to be postmarked by Monday, but voters could still turn them in to their local elections offices by the close of voting yesterday. About 27,000 more Democratic voters requested ballots than registered Republicans, but those returned were split down the middle.
The rush on absentee ballots came after a chaotic September primary, where some polls couldn't open on time because judges arrived late, voter access cards were missing and electronic check-in machines malfunctioned. Ehrlich expressed a lack of faith in the voting apparatus and encouraged his supporters to vote absentee. Last year, the legislature eased restrictions on who could vote absentee. Ehrlich vetoed it but was overridden by the General Assembly.
Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan also encouraged people to vote absentee after many of the primary problems occurred in his county.
Ballots with appropriate postmarks and with properly signed oaths will be fed into an optical scanning machine at each local election board. If the ballot isn't perfectly marked but the voter's intent is clear - say, an "X" was marked instead of filling in an oval or a candidate's name was circled and the oval left blank - a duplication team made up of a Democrat and Republican will re-create a ballot that can be scanned by the machine.
In the end, though, some voters never got their absentee ballots at all. Sharon Matcuk, a registered Democrat from Timonium who requested hers about a month ago, said yesterday, "I still haven't gotten my ballot," Matcuk, 58, has multiple sclerosis and said it is hard for her to get around.
She went to Timonium Elementary yesterday to cast a provisional ballot for Ehrlich and U.S. Senate candidate Michael S. Steele. She waited in a long line to do it, she said. "If I weren't so interested in doing my civic duty, I would have left," she said.
Joyce Smith, a 50-year-old nursing graduate student at the University of Rochester, didn't have that option. Her ballot from Baltimore County didn't make it to western New York until late Monday - too late for her to get a Nov. 6 postmark. She sent it yesterday, but "I'm assuming it will not be counted," she said of her votes for O'Malley and Cardin, the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate.
In tight races, it was expected that lawyers for each party would actively oversee the tallying of absentee ballots, watching for any hint of irregularity.
Because absentee ballots have been vetted by election boards for voter eligibility, the counting tends to go smoothly, according to election law experts, though legal challenges could hold up the count.
According to state law, an absentee ballot must be rejected if the voter did not sign the oath on the ballot envelope or if it is postmarked after Nov. 6.
Parties may challenge the validity of paper ballots on technical grounds - for example, if it is incorrectly filled out - but a ballot can be rejected only by unanimous agreement of the bipartisan local election board.
The count of provisional ballots is set to begin at 10 a.m. Monday. Any absentee ballots not in hand by Thursday but properly postmarked - mostly overseas or military ballots - will be counted Nov. 17.
State officials hope to certify the election by Nov. 28, three weeks after Election Day.