The nip and tuck battle between state Sen. John A. Pica Jr. and political newcomer Martin O'Malley in Northeast Baltimore's 43rd District is scheduled to be decided today when Baltimore election officials count an estimated 265 absentee ballots.
As of yesterday, Mr. O'Malley held a five-vote lead over Mr. Pica, 3,835 to 3,830, said Gene Raynor, the state elections board chief who personally counted the printed vote tallies that are produced by the election machines. On election night, unofficial vote tallies had given Mr. Pica, a two-term incumbent, a margin of 38 votes over his opponent.
"We're locked in a staring match," Mr. Pica said yesterday, likening the waiting to a standoff. "And we'll wait for the absentee votes to see which one of us blinks."
Election officials, with representatives and attorneys for both candidates present, will begin counting absentee ballots today. As of yesterday, there were 265 ballots but Mr. Raynor said more ballots postmarked by Tuesday's primary date could still arrive in the mail.
Among those absentee ballots there are certain to be votes for Mr. Pica. That's because election judges -- who are recommended for their jobs by each district's senator -- are required to vote by absentee ballot unless they are assigned to their own voting poll, Mr. Raynor said. There at least 100 election judges in the 43rd District.
Absentee ballots also are used by people who are ill, military personnel, and residents of nursing homes, at which Mr. O'Malley campaigned over the summer.
"We are all wondering what's behind Door No. 3," Mr. O'Malley said. "And thinking how many of them are election judges that might be appointed by Pica, how many people were at the polls working for Pica, how many were people that liked the Irish music I've been playing."
Mr. O'Malley, a 27-year-old attorney known more as an Irish ballad singer than a political strategist, captured voters' attention with attacks on Mr. Pica's attendance record in Annapolis. From then on, Mr. Pica was forced onto the defensive.
Mr. Pica, the 38-year-old chairman of the city Senate delegation, emphasized his experience in Annapolis. He brought Gov. William Donald Schaefer to the heart of the district, where the two hosted what was billed as an "old-fashioned political rally." Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke supported Mr. Pica financially and in public appearances.
Mr. Pica, a lawyer and stockbroker, outspent Mr. O'Malley 4-to-1, $81,206 to $17,135, according to the most recent campaign finance reports.
Mr. O'Malley knocked on doors and more doors and more doors still. Early in the summer, Mr. O'Malley picked up a key supporter, his soon-to-be father-in-law, Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr.
During the tabulation of votes Tuesday night, Mr. Pica and Mr. O'Malley were virtually neck and neck. "The only thing I know is Martin O'Malley went toe to toe. He ran a great campaign and it's close. I can't give you reasons. There didn't seem to be much of a rhyme or reason to these results," Mr. Pica said.