7 days, still counting in Wynn-Edwards race

Maryland Votes -- 2006

September 19, 2006|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,Sun reporter

TEMPLE HILLS -- Denise Diaz stood in a nearly empty office yesterday, surrounded by signs proclaiming "Donna Edwards for Congress." The place was strangely silent compared with the bustle of a week earlier, when supporters were making one final push to help their candidate defeat a seven-term incumbent.

The work was supposed to be over by now. Diaz, the canvassing director, was supposed to know whether Edwards had won or lost, whether Edwards was to close up shop or to push toward a near-certain victory in November as the Democratic nominee in an overwhelmingly Democratic district that spans parts of Prince George's and Montgomery counties.

"We knew it was going to be close, but we didn't expect an outcome like this," Diaz said. "By Tuesday we were like, let's get through this day and it's all over. But no - then Wednesday came, then Thursday, then Friday."

A week after Marylanders voted in the primary, the race for the Democratic nomination for the 4th District seat remains too close to call.

Fewer than 3,000 votes out of about 75,000 cast separate Edwards from Rep. Albert R. Wynn, and elections workers in both counties were busily sorting thousands of provisional ballots yesterday trying to compile final vote totals as quickly as possible.

Officials don't expect to be finished for days.

"I know we have some very anxious candidates," said Kevin Karpinski, the attorney for the Montgomery County Elections Board.

In Montgomery, there are between 11,000 and 12,000 provisional ballots to be sorted, Karpinski said, though it is still unclear how many will ultimately be counted. (Officials last week said about 3,000 of those ballots are in the 4th District. In Prince George's County, the number of provisional ballots in the 4th was unknown.)

After the provisional ballots are counted, both counties will move to the remaining absentee ballots as early as tomorrow.

Workers need to determine whether voters who used the paper ballots were eligible to vote. The provisional ballots were widely used in Montgomery because an error by election clerks prevented electronic machines from being activated properly and kept many polls from opening on time.

Because of those problems, a judge ordered polls to remain open an extra hour in the county.

County officials set up rows of chairs for observers yesterday as workers sorted and inspected ballots inside the county's election headquarters in Rockville.

Joe Corbett, a retired federal worker from Olney who volunteered for Edwards, was paying close attention to the tedious process.

Corbett had spent much of the summer going door-to-door trying to convince voters it was time for Wynn to go and for Edwards, a civic activist and former foundation executive, to represent them in Congress.

Yesterday, the job was in some ways the same. Instead of trying to get people to vote for Edwards, he was trying to make sure that every vote for Edwards was being counted.

He said he was frustrated because he knows of at least 19 people who were turned away after his precinct ran out of provisional ballots. He spoke to two of them, he said, who wanted to vote for Edwards but didn't have time to return to the polls. He keeps hearing all sorts of complaints about last week.

But he can't believe the race still isn't decided. "We figured we'd know [the results] that night," Corbett said. "I remember going to bed and we were behind, and in the morning, we were ahead by 1,000 votes."

Outside Wynn's congressional office in Largo, a worker in an adjacent office asked a reporter, "Did he win yet?" Not yet, he was told. "He will," the man replied.

Wynn spokesman Alon Kupferman said Wynn supporters were keeping watch over the vote tabulation as well. "We want to make sure this is a fair and impartial process," he said.

That the race was this close should send a message to Wynn, should he be re-elected, said Ronald Walters, a professor in government and politics at the University of Maryland, College Park. A political newcomer such as Edwards, he said, could only gain traction because of displeasure with Wynn, who was criticized for breaking with Democrats on several key votes.

"There is some very serious latent dissatisfaction with the incumbent's performance," Walters said. "They use that person [Edwards] to register that dissatisfaction. That says more about the constituency than about her."

Eager to learn her fate, Edwards couldn't stay away from the Montgomery County Elections Board yesterday as work began on sorting the ballots and readying some of them to be counted last night.

Last week, she said she was planning to file suit against Prince George's County elections officials because she was concerned that some votes were not properly safeguarded on election night. But she said yesterday that she was holding off until the counting is done.

"It's more important to me that the votes are counted than how quickly," she said.

It's still "possible" that she could make up the vote gap with the congressman, Edwards said. Regardless of the outcome, she said, she feels good about the fight she has waged.

"Clearly there were voters who were really trying to speak, and we heard them," she said. She hasn't ruled out a rematch in two years.

Her supporters are ready to knock on doors again for her, if it comes to that.

"At the beginning, no one knew who she was," Corbett said. "There's no doubt about it, we're going to win next time."

stephanie.desmon@baltsun.com

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