Maryland's closest race for governor in 75 years is likely to be decided today as election officials across the state huddle to count absentee ballots.
Democrat Parris N. Glendening finished Tuesday with an unofficial 6,187-vote lead out of about 1.36 million total votes cast. Mrs. Sauerbrey was chipping away at that lead last night as a few counties began counting their absentee vote.
But Mr. Glendening said yesterday that he remained confident of victory.
"I know it was tight," he told reporters in Annapolis. "And I know it's still a few more votes to be counted. But I do believe in fact that we have won."
Even without a final tally, Mr. Glendening was acting like a governor-elect, greeting current Gov. William Donald Schaefer and discussing his plan for governing at a news conference in front of the State House.
After Tuesday night's nail-biting drama, Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey worked at her Cockeysville campaign headquarters but took a day off from public appearances.
Her supporters gamely predicted that today's absentee count would erase Mr. Glendening's margin.
"Two-thirds of the absentee ballots were requested in areas that supported Ellen, and one-third from areas that supported Parris, so that bodes well for us," said Carol L. Hirschburg, a Sauerbrey spokeswoman. "We believe that when the fat lady starts singing, she'll be singing our song."
Ms. Hirschburg said the Sauerbrey campaign was investigating reports of irregularities at polling places in Baltimore, Baltimore County and elsewhere, although she refused to release specifics.
State election officials said they had received no formal complaints.
The campaign called the deputy general counsel of the Republican National Committee to Sauerbrey headquarters ,X yesterday to discuss the vote count.
45,000 absentee ballots
State election officials, who mailed out more than 50,000 absentee ballots, said voters completed and returned about 45,000 of them.
Only about 36 percent of the returned ballots belonged to residents of Prince George's and Montgomery counties and Baltimore -- the three areas of the state Mr. Glendening carried Tuesday.
Absentee ballots mailed from within the United States had to be postmarked by Monday and arrive at an election board by 4 p.m. yesterday.
Ballot envelopes postmarked from another country will still be counted if they arrive by Nov. 18.
Seven counties began tallying their absentee ballots late yesterday, while the remaining counties and Baltimore were to open and count their ballots today. That is expected to yield an unofficial winner, but election officials will not certify the results until they review all the returns tomorrow.
Even then, either candidate could demand a recount, which could further delay an official outcome.
Throughout the state yesterday, the tension was palpable at local election boards, where deputy sheriffs and -- in at least one case -- a private detective watched to ensure the integrity of the ballot counting.
Private detective watches
It wasn't always welcomed.
"We're all a little [annoyed] here. We did everything fair and square and legal, but our integrity was still questioned," said Richard L. Coss, the chairman of the election board in Washington County, where Mrs. Sauerbrey gained 256 votes.
Mr. Coss said Mrs. Sauerbrey sent a private detective to monitor the count. "I can't see that he did anything but try and upset the procedure. We had to do things we never had to do before. This whole thing has gotten completely crazy," Mr. Coss said.
As the first results from the absentee ballots began trickling in last night, Mrs. Sauerbrey was nibbling at Mr. Glendening's lead.
In Allegany County, she took 360 votes to his 318. In Kent County, she got 232 votes to his 168. And in Carroll County, she took 1,008 to Mr. Glendening's 475.
When Charles, Washington and Cecil counties came in, she had shaved his margin by 1,235 votes. Officials in St. Mary's quit counting at 11 p.m. and planned to resume the task this morning.
Despite the narrowing lead, David Seldin, a Glendening spokesman, found cause for optimism:
"What's significant is that we're matching or exceeding our Tuesday results in terms of the percentage in all of these. If the voter breakdown geographically matches the Tuesday results, we will win as expected."
Various people offered different theories as to how the two candidates would split the uncounted ballots elsewhere.
Republicans said many absentee voters tend to be members of the military or affluent people traveling on holiday or business, groups they said would support Mrs. Sauerbrey.
Democrats, meanwhile, pointed out that many absentee ballots are cast by the elderly and by students attending school out of state.
"Parris does well with seniors. Parris does well with students," said John T. Willis, a Glendening adviser.
Historically, election officials and others said, the pattern of absentee voting differs from county to county.