By Christopher Weaver and Eli Segall
EASTON – The identity of the heir to Rep. Wayne Gilchrest’s congressional seat remained uncertain Thursday night as the first day of absentee canvassing closed, though the Democrat edged a few more votes ahead.
After Tuesday’s election, Frank Kratovil, the Democratic state’s attorney for Queen Anne’s County led state Sen. Andy Harris, who upset Gilchrest in the Republican primaries, by a mere 915 votes according to the State Elections Board.
That margin could be easily upset by the 28,000 voters who cast absentee ballots in the 1st Congressional District prompting both candidates to retire quietly and without celebration on Election Night. Local election boards began counting the first round of absentee ballots Thursday — those received before Oct. 23 — and those results reported so far favored Kratovil.
As of an update at approximately 5:15 p.m. Thursday, Kratovil led the race with 166,127 to Harris’ 164,113.
In Anne Arundel, Kratovil gained 1,639 votes to Harris’ 1,621, even though the Democrat underperformed his opponent on Election Day. Kratovil also gained in the unofficial counts in Caroline, Dorchester, Somerset and Wicomico counties, all of which he won on Election Day.
The ballots that arrived after Oct. 23 will be counted next week, so the outcome of the race may not be known until then. In the meantime, the tedious work of adding up the voters’ choice for the 1st District has plodded on in tiny board rooms crowded by elections officials, volunteers and observers — mostly lawyers — from both campaigns.
In downtown Centreville, at the Queen Anne’s County Board of Elections office, three elderly men sat at a brown folding table, processing ballots rejected by the Accu-Vote optical scanner, a vote counting machine.
One man read aloud the votes cast on the ballot, while another filled in those responses on a new ballot. The third man doled out new ballots and collected the discarded ones, which had been marked, with a pencil, “SPOILED.”
Meanwhile, representatives from the Kratovil and Harris campaigns hovered over them, and state election officials monitored the process.
Some absentee ballots were rejected altogether, because the postmarked dates were after Nov. 4, or because of problems with the completion of the ballot. In Queen Anne’s Thursday, 1,412 absentee ballots were accepted and 28 were denied.
A few miles down U.S. Route 50, in Easton, observers and elections officials engaged in a similar ritual.
“We hardly ever have any watchers,” said Joe Secrist, a Talbot County Republican and former election board member observing the count on behalf of Harris. “It’s a big deal and it’s because of the tight race.”
As the canvass dragged on — only about a third of the ballots were counted by 4 p.m. — the watchers joked about voting results and errors. One voter surprised observers for both parties by casting a ballot for Sen. Barack Obama for president, and Harris for Congress.
Another, apparently undecided voter, selected all three candidates for Congress: Kratovil, Harris and Libertarian Richard Davis, who earned more than 2 percent of the vote on Election Day, and may be a spoiler if the margin remains close. That vote was discarded.
Of the errors, Secrist quipped that the hardest thing about voting correctly is “finding a No. 2 pencil these days.”
By the end of the day, Talbot, along with Baltimore County, Harford, Cecil and Worcester counties had not yet reported results for the first round of counting, and even as Thursday’s momentum seemed to swing in the Democratic candidate’s direction, the race remained far too close to call.
The Harris campaign did not return a request for comment.
Kratovil’s campaign was pleased with the results reported Thursday afternoon, but was reluctant to claim the election too early.
“We’re cautiously optimistic,” said Tim McCann, Kratovil’s campaign manager. “Clearly, Frank’s ability not only to win on Election Day, but to do so in a district where John McCain won considerably . . . gives us a lot of reason for encouragement. We’re confident that Frank Kratovil’s going to be the next representative for the 1st District.”