Six letter openers lay on the bare tables for hours, waiting for the clerks of democracy.
The sharp metal openers would tear across the tops of 3,777 envelopes holding absentee ballots cast in Baltimore, envelopes that may hold the outcome of the race for governor.
By 2:30 p.m. yesterday, almost five hours behind schedule because of legal wrangling, six Board of Elections clerks waded into stacks of mail from around the world. Not used to doing their duty under the glare of television cameras, the suspicious eyes of political gadflies and a crush of rubberneckers, they were led into battle by Terri Marciszewski.
"This is nerve-wracking," said Ms. Marciszewski, chief of absentee ballots. "It's never been this close before, and all this just slows us down."
When it's not close, when the margin of victory far exceeds the number of absentee ballots, nobody bothers to stick their nose over Ms. Marciszewski's shoulder.
But when the outcome is in doubt -- as the governor's race has been since the polls closed Tuesday with Democrat Parris N. Glendening a mere 6,187 votes ahead of Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey -- absentee ballots become crucial.
"Candidates and their lawyers and the attorney general are having meetings upon meetings," said state elections chief Gene M. Raynor. "If we do not have unofficial results, that's why."
Such enforcement of dotted i's and crossed t's caused delays in election offices across Maryland.
At the Montgomery County elections board in Rockville, administrator Carol S. Evans was asked at 2:45 p.m. yesterday when her people might begin counting. "I hope before I retire," she said.
Baltimore County election offices were crawling with more lawyers than the O. J. Simpson trial. Throughout the day, knots of Glendening supporters huddled, whispering in Parkville hallways, as Sauerbrey workers did the same, each camp trying to puzzle out the best way to go in a civics lesson that hasn't been needed for years.
First, each ballot envelope had to be checked to see if it met the various postmark deadlines. Then the envelopes were opened to see if the ballot and accompanying affidavit were in order. After that, each ballot was separated by legislative district and then put in alphabetical order.
Baltimore elections administrator Barbara Jackson said the Sauerbrey camp was challenging the signatures on every absentee ballot to make sure it matched signatures in voting registration files.
"We're trying hard to appease everyone, except maybe employees of the election board," said Ms. Jackson.
In one case -- the ballot of 71-year-old Freda Smith, a Pennsylvania Avenue resident voting as an absentee because of trouble getting a ride to the polls previously -- officials haggled 50 minutes. The problems included her signature being on the wrong line of the envelope.
Ultimately her vote was accepted, but Ms. Jackson feared a nightmare subjecting each of the 3,777 ballots to such scrutiny.
Each ballot clerk in Baltimore was watched by at least two people: an eagle-eye from the Glendening camp and a sharpshooter from the Sauerbrey forces. Watching the watchdogs were the news media.
Helen L. Dale, a state transportation employee, used a vacation day to come by for a look -- and by her presence lend support to Mr. Glendening. A man with a disposable camera was getting it all on film.
"Everything you do, they want to see it," said Ms. Marciszewski, who has worked for nine years on the elections board.
Imagine 100 cooks making a pot of soup at the same time.
At 2:23 p.m., the pot finally started to simmer when the first of six small safes of ballots was brought out and unlocked. The envelopes, affixed with stamps bearing images of everything from AIDS ribbons to Elvis Presley, were dumped in trays alongside the clerks.
The King of Rock 'n' Roll was likely to be found inside the envelopes as well.
"Elvis gets a few write-in votes every election," said Ms. Jackson.
How weird did it get?
Elections clerk Rosalie Bertorelli called out: "Is it all right if we put the ones we already opened under the table?"
"Better to put them on the couch," someone answered.
Ms. Bertorelli shouted: "Can we get a ruling on the couch?"
"Yeah," someone cracked. "We'll need it for the psychiatrist."
The fun resumes today at 6 a.m.
THE ABSENTEE BALLOT COUNT
Number of absentee ballots returned -- 788
Number of absentee ballots counted -- 678
Absentee ballots for Glendening -- 318
Absentee ballots for Sauerbrey -- 360
Percent of absentee for Sauerbrey -- 53.1
Percent of Tuesday vote for Sauerbrey -- 57.1
Number of absentee ballots returned -- 3,900
Number of absentee ballots counted -- 3,805
Absentee ballots for Glendening -- 1,482
Absentee ballots for Sauerbrey -- 2,323
Percent of absentee for Sauerbrey -- 61.9
Percent of Tuesday vote for Sauerbrey -- 60.3
Number of absentee ballots returned -- 3,775
Number of absentee ballots counted -- 0
Absentee ballots for Glendening --
Absentee ballots for Sauerbrey --
Percent of absentee for Sauerbrey --