Mayoral election fight in Carroll falls to court

Judge to decide whether to allow discarded `Holt' votes that alter outcome

Judge to decide fate of write-in ballots in Mount Airy election

July 23, 2002|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

The outcome of Mount Airy's mayoral election is now in a judge's hands.

Carroll Circuit Judge Raymond E. Beck Sr. promised yesterday a decision by the end of next week on the fate of 240 discarded ballots that, if counted, would overturn the result of the May contest.

Supporters of write-in candidate James S. Holt are arguing that the ballots, which said only "Holt," should count.

"I represent citizens who feel they have a right to have their votes counted," lawyer J. Brooks Leahy said yesterday.

But lawyers for the town maintain that the votes could not be counted for the candidate because six other Holts live in Mount Airy.

According to the town election board's formal tally, Holt lost to incumbent Gerald R. Johnson, 492 votes to 311. Johnson, the town's mayor since 1990, has been serving while the case has been pending.

Johnson and Holt attended yesterday's hearing, sitting quietly on opposite sides of the courtroom. Though Holt has refused to push for or endorse a challenge to the result -- two supporters brought the suit -- he has said he will serve as mayor if a judge declares him the rightful winner.

Holt and election officials recognized the potential for problems long before the first ballot was counted May 6. The town election board decided in April that it would accept votes for James S. Holt, James Holt, Jim Holt, Jimmy Holt, J. Holt and J.S. Holt -- but not for "Holt." Holt, an engineer who had never run for office, spent the ensuing weeks telling people how to vote for him correctly, and he handed out sample ballots on election day.

Even before the results came in, he predicted that confusion over write-in procedures might cost him the race. But when Johnson was declared the winner, Holt refused to contest the election, saying the board had treated him fairly.

Johnson was sworn into office the day after the board certified the election result, and he has refused to comment on the dispute over his victory.

His victory caused contention almost immediately, as scores of town residents found out their votes had not been counted. Many voters said that the elections board should have informed all of the town's residents, either through a mailing or an advertisement, how to vote for a write-in candidate. Some said they wrote in only Holt's last name because an article published four days before the election in the Mount Airy Gazette newspaper said such votes would be accepted.

Holt supporters Michael Boyer and Constance McKain immediately began planning a response that led to yesterday's hearing. Though the proceedings unearthed little new information about the vote count, the sides clarified their arguments on how those facts should be interpreted.

Leahy, the lawyer for the Holt supporters, argued that nationwide precedent requires local election boards to do all they can to interpret voter intent for each vote. The intent of ballots containing only the name Holt was clear, Leahy said, because none of the other Holts in town -- including the candidate's wife and two teen-age children -- had declared any interest in being mayor. Leahy also said the board failed to instruct voters sufficiently, especially considering the mistaken information published in the local newspaper.

Several would-be Holt voters testified yesterday about the confusion.

"I was just doing what the paper said," Michelle Fitzpatrick said.

Because the board made no effort to clarify write-in procedures, its decision to accept only six variations of Holt's name was arbitrary, Leahy told the judge.

The town attorney, Richard Murray, and Johnson's attorney, William Fallon, argued that the elections board had no legal responsibility to tell voters they must include a write-in candidate's first name. They argued that the board went beyond its required role by informing Holt before the election of the six variations of his name it would accept. With others named Holt living in town, the board could not reasonably count the 240 ballots, Fallon said, adding that nationwide legal precedent does not accept a last name as full identification.

"If you were registering to be on the ballot, you couldn't say, `I only want to be identified as Holt,'" he said.

Both sides agree that Maryland case law offers no controlling decision in such a case. Though state and county election codes say that write-in votes should include a first and last name, those codes don't rule town elections, and Mount Airy's code offers little guidance on write-in procedures.

George Woodfield, chairman of Mount Airy's elections board, testified yesterday that he would not have felt comfortable recognizing Holt votes.

Fallon, brandishing copies of the disputed ballots, asked, "Today, looking at this ballot, can you discern who that vote was intended for?"

"No," Woodfield replied.

"Why?" Fallon asked.

"Because it only has the last name Holt," Woodfield said.

Fallon then asked for the case to be dismissed, because town laws don't require the board to inform voters of how to vote for specific write-in candidates. "Does the Board of Elections then have to take specific steps to tell everyone what the standards should be?" he asked.

"That's the big question," Beck said, drawing laughs from the courtroom crowd of about 20.

He then denied the motion for dismissal.

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