By noon, Mr. Raynor sent a notice to all 24 local election boards asking them not to open or count any absentee ballots without an affidavit. If boards decided to do so anyway, he advised that those ballots be put to one side and counted separately. That way, those ballots could later be challenged if necessary.
After spending the day listening to challenges, Baltimore's election board declared a recess about 8 p.m. without having counted a single absentee vote.
The board voted to give representatives of the candidates six hours -- from 6 a.m. to noon today -- to compare signatures on some 3,500 ballot envelopes with registration forms in file in the office, a procedure sought by the Sauerbrey camp and protested by Mr. Glendening's.
In Baltimore County, Democrats demanded to check the signature on each of 6,567 absentee ballot envelopes against the signature as recorded on the voting rolls. They wound up challenging more than two-thirds of the ballots because there were no signed affidavits on file for them.
Joseph Karey, the election board's lawyer, said counting ballots without affidavits had been done "in many, many elections and I don't think we should change it now, even though it might change the election."
The board, two Democrats and one Republican, agreed. "I don't think we have the right not to count them," said Jacqueline K. McDaniel, a Democratic member. Henry Abrams, a lawyer representing the Glendening camp, said that to count the challenged ballots "would undermine the integrity of the process. Other jurisdictions have excluded them."
The Baltimore County board ultimately decided to count the ballots, but to keep the challenged ballots separate from those accepted by both parties. David Nevins, a Glendening spokesman, denied that the tactic was retaliation for a similar move by the Sauerbrey campaign elsewhere. "It's just because we want to make sure the law is followed and that there are no irregularities," he said.
Several anxious candidates spent the day at the county board office. One was Republican Nancy Hastings of Kingsville, who was 62 votes out of third place and a House of Delegates seat from the 6th District.
In Howard County, Glendening supporters challenged 71 of 3,022 absentee ballots but succeeded in knocking out only 10 of them.
Democrats objected to envelopes that had not been stamped with the date and time that they arrived at the election board. They challenged ballots where voters signed but did not print their names on a required inner envelope, which contains the ballot. They asked the board to toss out ballots where the mailing envelopes were sealed, but the inner en velopes were not.
In the case of several ballots lacking a time and date stamp, employees said under oath that the disputed ballots -- one from an election judge -- were received prior to the deadline of 4 p.m. Wednesday.
After hearing from employees, board member Mary B. Zeigler said she had been given an absentee ballot on election night and had forgotten to stamp it until an employee reminded her to do so.
"For us to unilaterally throw out ballots and deprive people of their vote for something that was not their fault is unacceptable," she said.
In Harford County, where support for Mrs. Sauerbrey is strong, a Glendening supporter challenged the absentee ballot of a nursing home patient who had bandaged arms and couldn't fill out the ballot. Two election officials marked her choices while a nurse witnessed the vote.
"I think what's going on here is absolutely mean-spirited," said James F. Fanseen, a Sauerbrey supporter.
Democrats challenged erasures or slight tears on ballots, or slightly torn envelopes. At one point last night, Rita Dather, Harford County's election administrator, cried because of Democratic criticism.
Predictably, the two camps offered different interpretations of what was going on yesterday.
State Delegate Maggie McIntosh of Baltimore, vice chairwoman of the state Democratic Party, said Mrs. Sauerbrey wasn't winning by high enough margins in the rural counties -- where her support is strongest -- to eventually erase the lead Mr. Glendening built Tuesday.
The GOP, Ms. McIntosh charged, hopes "to fool the public into thinking this race is becoming more and more narrow by letting all the suburban counties do their counting tonight, bottle-necking the three major subdivisions."
The purpose, she said, is to rally public support and "to set themselves up for a possible court challenge" of the election result.
Carol L. Hirschburg, spokeswoman for the Sauerbrey campaign, de nied this.
"We have had to deal with these irregularities, which is our right and our responsibility," she said. "We are trying to win this election through the canvass, which includes the absentee ballots. And if after the canvass is completed, there is a basis for a court challenge we will evaluate that option then."
To hear updates as absentee ballots are counted in the gubernatorial election, call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. Using a Touch-Tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6501 after you hear the greeting. For more local Sundial numbers, see the SunSource index on Page 2A.