Voters furious that their ballots may not count Glendening lead grows as tally nears end ELECTION 1994

November 13, 1994|By Michael James and Thomas W. Waldron | Michael James and Thomas W. Waldron,Sun Staff Writers Sun staff writers Frank Langfitt and John W. Frece contributed to this article.

Emil Lentchner is an 86-year-old retired dentist from Silver Spring, legally blind and wheel-chair bound after suffering a stroke earlier this year.

Peter G. Mattes of Kingsville is a former member of the Baltimore city election board, a proud voter who in 20 years has never missed an election.

They don't know each other, but they're in the same boat as thousands of others throughout the state -- their votes may not count because of challenges to absentee ballots by gubernatorial candidates Parris N. Glendening and Ellen R. Sauerbrey.

The candidates are locked in a neck-and-neck struggle for every vote they can get -- or nullify. And the result is that some voters, including the handicapped and the terminally ill, may lose their say in this year's close election.

"I'm an invalid. I voted as I voted. And it was a vote as far as I was concerned," said Mr. Lentchner, whose ballot is questioned because he did not sign an affidavit swearing to be himself.

"I'm upset. The board of elections accepted it as valid, so why isn't it valid now?"

Mr. Mattes didn't sign an affidavit, either. Election board officials did not ask either of the men to fill them out.

"I take a lot of pride in my voting," said Mr. Mattes, 37, an insurance manager who was out of town on business on election day. "Now my vote is about to be nullified . . . . This is anarchy. This is not democracy. Everyone has to follow the same rules."

In Baltimore City, dozens of ballots were challenged because voters signed election documents with an X -- their physical impairments so severe that they were unable to write their name. In Baltimore County, a blind man's ballot became a heated source of controversy because he signed by using a rubber stamp of his signature.

As both sides have challenged ballots across the state, local election officials have in many cases decided to count the questioned ballots nonetheless. But the ballots generally are being kept separate from others in the event attorneys for one side or the other attempt to have them thrown out in court.

The Republicans already have gone to court in Montgomery County, where roughly 2,000 ballots have been set aside pending a judge's ruling.

Both camps have said they simply are trying to ensure the integrity of the election. But the efforts may be hurting the public images of both candidates.

"When you start nit-picking in interpretation of the law," said Pamela Brewington, former president of the Montgomery election board, "you are in effect denying people their right to vote.

'Don't discourage people'

"A campaign and a party may think winning is everything, but you don't distort the process in order to win. In this country, we have a heck of a lot of trouble getting people to vote, and the last thing you want to do is discourage people," Ms. Brewington said.

Mr. Lentchner's ballot has been questioned by Mrs. Sauerbrey's campaign workers, who primarily have attacked the absentee ballots in Baltimore City and Montgomery and Prince George's counties -- the three jurisdictions Mr. Glendening carried in Tuesday's vote.

Glendening representatives, meanwhile, are going after Mr. Mattes' vote and others primarily in Baltimore County, which went for Mrs. Sauerbrey on Tuesday.

As of last night, Mr. Glendening held a lead statewide of but 3,019 votes out of the nearly 1.4 million total votes cast. The race is so tight that it has come down to the absentees -- votes that usually get counted under much less scrutiny. But now, every signature is being closely examined, every postmark checked, and every envelope seal inspected.

Pointing fingers

The challenges "are a question of principle," said Carol L. Hirschburg, a spokesman for Mrs. Sauerbrey.

"A clean election is one in which the rules are followed, the rules that are established by law," Ms. Hirschburg said. "If a ballot gets stricken because a board of election didn't follow the rules, it is the board of election's fault, it's not our fault. The law is the law."

She added, "We're not saying it's the voters' fault. It's an example of the sloppy procedures the Democrat-run elections board has allowed to happen even in good-government Montgomery County."

David Nevins, a Glendening spokesman, pointed the finger at the Sauerbrey camp.

"We would be thrilled to just have allowed all absentee ballots to be counted," Mr. Nevins said. "However, since she started the process of challenging in areas that are our strong holds, we have to do it in areas that are hers, in order to preserve our rights. We simply want to make sure that what's done in one jurisdiction is done in another."

Representatives of Mr. Glendening, a Democrat, have challenged roughly one-third of the 6,500 absentee ballots in Baltimore County. But Mrs. Sauerbrey, the Republican, has been challenging ballots there as well -- including that of Mr. Nevins.

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