Incumbent mayor takes oath, despite disputed votes

May 17, 2002|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

Despite lingering questions about who won Mount Airy's mayoral election last week, incumbent Mayor Gerald R. Johnson had himself sworn in for a fourth term yesterday morning by the clerk of Carroll County Circuit Court.

Officially, Johnson defeated write-in candidate James S. Holt 492 votes to 311 in the election May 6, but Holt supporters say the town's Board of Elections discarded 259 votes for their candidate because the ballots contained only his last name.

Two of those supporters, Michael Boyer and Constance S. McKain, filed a suit yesterday afternoon asking a Circuit Court judge to count all ballots containing the name "Holt" as votes for James S. Holt. If they win the suit, Holt would have enough votes to win the election, they say. Boyer said an initial hearing could be held as soon as today.

Attorneys on both sides said yesterday that despite having been sworn in, Johnson could be out of office if a judge rules that enough discarded votes count to change the results.

Johnson's swearing-in followed a decision Wednesday by the town's Board of Elections to uphold election results despite Boyer's formal objection. The mayor needed only certified election results to have himself sworn in, according to Circuit Court officials and the town attorney.

Johnson could not be reached for comment at Town Hall or at his home yesterday. His response since the election has been, "Until someone tells me otherwise, I'm the mayor."

When told yesterday that Johnson had been sworn in, Holt said, "Get out of here. He really did that? This is some unbelievable stuff."

Holt has not personally contested the election but reiterated that if the results are overturned, he will serve as mayor.

It's not unusual for the mayor to have himself sworn in by the court clerk, said Richard C. Murray, town attorney. The town has to have an acting mayor, Murray said, and Johnson will have full authority with the suit against his victory pending.

Boyer, who has become spokesman for the angry voters who feel Holt was cheated out of victory, called Johnson a "sneaky son of a gun" yesterday.

"This whole thing is becoming laughable," he said. "It's not laughable that we lost our votes, but some of these things that go along with it are just absurd."

Election officials had told Holt ahead of time that they would accept six variations of his name but not his last name only, because six other Holts are registered Mount Airy voters. Holt deemed the arrangement fair.

Election officials said they were trying to be fair, noting that Johnson would have had a case to dispute the election if they had counted ballots containing only Holt's last name. They said they made it clear to Holt that he would be responsible for telling his supporters how to vote properly.

But his supporters say the board should have done more to inform voters of write-in procedures.

The town's charter contains no specific language addressing procedures for write-in voting or for contesting elections. The election results also don't fall under county or state election law.

In the absence of such governing language, a judge will have to determine voter intent, Boyer said.

Maryland case law indicates that local boards must determine voter intent for each ballot and not allow minor errors to interfere, said Boyer's attorney, J. Brooks Leahy.

Murray said he couldn't find much case law addressing disputes over write-in votes but did note a 1995 decision from Montana that said ballots containing only a last name did not demonstrate clear voter intent.

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