Mount Airy write-in backers seek recount

Mayoral candidate's supporters protest election

May 12, 2002|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

In a miniature version of Florida's 2000 election debacle, a Mount Airy resident, angry over counting practices in last week's mayoral election, has sent a protest letter to the town's Board of Elections asking that votes for defeated write-in candidate James S. Holt be recounted.

Officially, Holt lost to incumbent Mayor Gerald R. Johnson, 492-311. But Holt's supporters claim the Board of Elections failed to count 259 ballots, many of which contained only Holt's last name.

The town's Board of Elections had told Holt ahead of time that it would accept six variations of his name - but not just "Holt." Angry residents, however, say the board did nothing to inform them of how to file write-in votes.

"The bottom line is that 550 people who tried to vote for Jim Holt are outraged, because we think he won," said Michael Boyer, a defeated council candidate who has become spokesman for the informal group challenging the mayoral results and who hired a lawyer to write the protest letter.

"I never thought this could happen in our town, but we want our real choice in office."

The vote count has dominated conversation all week in the town of 6,125, which straddles the border between Frederick and Carroll counties.

Holt has said since Monday that he won't challenge the result himself but also won't stop his supporters from filing a challenge.

"I'm flattered that people are doing this on my behalf," he said. "They really should protest if they feel their votes were thrown away. But as far as I'm concerned, it's over, and I lost."

However, Holt said he would serve as mayor if the results are overturned.

Johnson has declined comment on the election controversy. "Until somebody tells me otherwise, I'm the mayor," he said.

The town's charter has no specific language pertaining to write-in candidates or election challenges, so it remains unclear to those complaining and to town officials what law would govern a reinterpretation of the election results.

But Maryland case law demands that election boards try to determine the intent of each vote and not eliminate votes based on minor errors, said J. Brooks Leahy, the Westminster lawyer representing Boyer in the dispute.

Boyer said he wants the matter to go to court if the Board of Elections won't overturn the result.

The new council and mayor are scheduled to be sworn in May 20, but it remains unclear whether a court hearing would have to occur before then.

Election board Chairman George Woodfield said the board recognized several weeks before the election that it would have to set a write-in policy for Holt, because the town has six other Holts.

The board decided ballots with just "Holt" on them would be open to protest from Johnson, who would be able to question the intent of such ballots.

So the board determined six acceptable variations - J. Holt, James Holt, Jim Holt, Jimmy Holt, James S. Holt and J.S. Holt.

They sent a letter containing those variations to Holt, who said he thought the policy seemed fair.

"We were trying to end up not deciding on voter intent, and now, I guess that might come back on us," Woodfield said.

The board's efforts were not helped when an article in the May 2 Mount Airy Gazette quoted a political scientist saying ballots containing only the name "Holt" would be acceptable.

Most of Holt's campaign signs also contained only his last name.

He tried to counteract the problem, telling every voter he met to write his full name and handing out leaflets all day Monday that showed the correct way to vote for him.

But in talking to people who had just voted, he realized that many had erred. He was not surprised, he said, to learn that he might have won if all his supporters had voted correctly.

The board set aside 259 ballots - but did not count how many thrown-out ballots contained the name Holt, Woodfield said.

Holt supporters have presumed that all 259 ballots contain their candidate's name, but that's not necessarily true, Woodfield said, and the board will not recount the ballots unless ordered to by the town attorney or a judge.

"If a judge tells us we have to go back to those ballots, we'll do it, but until then, we have to stand by our decision," Woodfield said.

Holt supporters have argued that the board should have posted specific instructions in the voting area on how to write in candidates.

"Hindsight is always perfect," Woodfield said in reply. "I'm sure that changes will be made to the town code so this can't happen in the future."

Though the town election is not governed by state or county election law, state guidelines require that write-in votes at least specify a first initial, said Terry Holliday, deputy director of candidacy and campaign finance for the State Board of Elections.

Such a controversy would be unlikely on the state level, however, because write-in candidates still must file, and votes for candidates who have not filed are automatically thrown out, Holliday said.

Mount Airy law did not require Holt to file his candidacy.

Amid the swirl of contention, Holt has remained perhaps the calmest person in town.

He entered the election on a whim after a conversation with town activists and said he has had fun all week as colleagues at his Baltimore engineering office jokingly called him Al - as in Gore.

He's seen his picture on Washington and Baltimore television stations and his name in at least five newspapers.

"I'm just happy and proud that I did well," he said.

"It means a lot to me to know deep down that I got the most votes. It's been great fun."

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