Judge's ruling to make Holt town's mayor

Ballots with surname only are valid, court says

`A tough situation'

Johnson must leave office after serving three terms

Mount Airy

July 31, 2002|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

A Carroll County judge overturned yesterday the result of Mount Airy's mayoral election, ruling that a write-in candidate should have received credit for ballots containing only his last name.

The ruling, which apparently ends a dispute that arose as the votes were counted in the election May 6, requires a three-term incumbent to vacate the office in favor of the challenger, James S. Holt. Carroll Circuit Judge Raymond E. Beck Sr. said Mount Airy election officials who awarded the victory to Mayor Gerald R. Johnson by 181 votes should not have discarded more than 250 ballots containing only the name "Holt."

"The Board was clearly erroneous in failing to determine that the intent of these voters was to cast a vote for James Holt," wrote Beck. "The Board was also clearly erroneous in failing to inform the electorate of the proper method by which a write-in vote could be cast."

Holt said yesterday that he never doubted that the majority of town voters intended to vote for him.

"The fact that I'm actually mayor is starting to soak in," said Holt, who had never run for office before. "It's got to sink in."

Holt is to be sworn in tomorrow. He will participate in his first town meeting Monday.

"I'm happy for Mount Airy," said Michael Boyer, one of two residents who filed suit asking for the election to be overturned. "The intent of the voter is the most important thing, and the judge agreed that the intent of the voter is primary."

Johnson said he had no comment about the decision, which will abruptly end his 12-year run as mayor of the fast-growing town. He would not say whether he would appeal the decision. Others in Town Hall yesterday said Johnson has cleared out his desk.

The town's board of elections will probably not appeal the decision, said Chairman George Woodfield.

"We're not going to put the town through any more of this," he said, adding that an informal poll of Town Council members yesterday found little support for an appeal.

State election officials said they could not recall a similar case of a judge overturning a local election, and attorneys for both sides said they had been unable to find similar cases in Maryland.

Holt, an engineer who works in Baltimore, announced his candidacy in March, joining an informal slate of candidates seeking to unseat the mayor and nine-term incumbent Councilman R. Delaine Hobbs.

Holt and election officials recognized the potential for procedural problems long before the first ballot was counted. The town's code provides almost no guidance on write-in voting, so the town election board, hoping to eliminate confusion, 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." Satisfied, Holt spent the ensuing weeks telling supporters how to vote properly.

But the board did nothing to inform voters how to write in a candidate, declining even to post instructions in the town's single polling area.

Four days before the election, the Mount Airy Gazette, a paper distributed free to town residents, wrote that votes for "Holt" would be acceptable - and 252 people filled out ballots with only the write-in candidate's last name. The election board ruled Johnson the winner, 492 votes to 311.

Holt refused to protest the result, saying the board had treated him fairly. But two supporters, Boyer and Constance McKain, filed suit.

In a hearing last week, attorney J. Brooks Leahy argued that the board of elections should have informed voters how to designate a write-in candidate. He also argued that the board should have tried to determine the intent of every vote.

"There were so many things they could have done, and we really think that they did nothing," Leahy said of the board.

Beck agreed.

The board acted reasonably in determining six acceptable variations of Holt's name but should have publicized its decision, he wrote. He also wondered why the board made no public effort to refute the inaccurate information in the Gazette article. "How difficult would it have been to simply post a notice on the door, informing voters that write-in votes must contain more than just a surname?" he wrote.

Beck also noted that Johnson had appointed all three board members. "This Court is not accusing the Board of making its decisions solely to support Gerald Johnson in the election," he wrote. "However, the appearance of impropriety is certainly a relevant factor in the Court's decision-making process."

The judge dismissed the board's argument that the votes could have been for any of the seven Holts in Mount Airy.

"In a small town such as Mount Airy it is extremely unlikely that voters would confuse candidate Holt with any other Holt," he wrote. "As the evidence indicated, one Holt is an incarcerated felon, three Holts are the candidate's wife and children, and another couple with the last name of Holt did not campaign for mayor and are not seeking office."

Woodfield said he believes that Holt, not the board, was responsible for telling voters how to vote properly. Town attorney Richard Murray said that judges normally give administrative bodies such as the board great discretion and wondered why Beck made such a sweeping decision overriding election officials.

"The board handled a tough situation to the best of its honest ability," he said.

Town leaders, many of whom have worked with Johnson for years, said they're ready to work with Holt.

"I'd like to congratulate Mr. Holt on his selection as mayor," said Councilman John P. Medve. "I hope we can work together to ensure Mount Airy remains a quality place to live."

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