The results will not be known for at least another day, maybe two, but nervous partisans couldn't stay away.
As Anne Arundel County election workers began the monumental task yesterday of sorting and counting more than 15,000 absentee votes, curious observers crowded over their shoulders, trying to discern voting patterns in several tight contests.
At stake: the outcome of the county executive race between Republican John R. Leopold and Democrat George F. Johnson IV, separated by 334 votes as of Tuesday, as well as other races.
"Bring your sleeping bag," said Ron George, a Republican who is trailing by fewer than 600 votes in his House of Delegates race, as he watched the proceedings at the modest Glen Burnie office.
Absentee ballot counting began yesterday in the Baltimore area with a number of local races hanging in the balance. It was not quite like Florida with its hanging chads, but there was a lot of buzz at local election offices.
In Carroll County, conservative Republican Michael D. Zimmer widened his lead in his campaign for the Board of Commissioners. In Baltimore County, the tallying of absentee ballots is carrying over into today, leaving uncertain two House of Delegates races.
In Anne Arundel, officials took extra measures to protect the record number of absentee ballots. County Executive Janet S. Owens dispatched members of the county police department's SWAT team to guard the elections annex in Glen Burnie, where absentee ballots were being kept.
Leopold and Johnson did not attend the counting, which is open to the public. But their representatives and other partisans watched teams of two election judges - one Democrat and one Republican - open and review the paper ballots. Once approved, the ballots were sent through an optical scanner.
Anne Arundel elections director Barbara L. Fisher said her staff had processed 6,500 absentee ballots by 8 p.m. She said counting would be completed late today or tomorrow. Observers will not know the results until the canvassing is complete, as state rules bar the release of partial absentee counts.
Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland and other groups yesterday appealed an Anne Arundel County judge's decision to not count absentee ballots postmarked on Election Day. The suit was brought on behalf of a nursing-home resident in Baltimore and an out-of-state college student who complained they had not received their absentee ballots by Nov. 6 - the deadline to postmark them - even though they had requested them.
In a statement, the coalition said it hoped that the Maryland Court of Appeals would hear the case Monday.
In Baltimore County, with two legislative races up in the air, the number of election watchers nearly outnumbered the 20 workers at the Board of Elections office in Catonsville.
Republican Del. William J. Frank finished seven votes shy of the third and final slot in his three-member House district. The freshman legislator hoped to leave with enough to secure re-election representing the 42nd District, which includes Towson, Lutherville and Timonium.
"You can sit at home and worry about it or you can sit here and watch it," he said, from his perch on a metal folding chair, across from the long banquet-style tables were the counters were sitting.
Frank placed fourth in the votes cast at polling places Tuesday, behind Democrat Stephen W. Lafferty, a planner from Towson, Republican Del. Susan Aumann and Democrat Tracy Miller, a college professor.
Frank and fellow Republican Del. Joseph C. Boteler III rode to the elections headquarters together.
Boteler was 47 votes shy in his bid for re-election to represent the 8th District, which includes Perry Hall, Parkville and part of Rosedale.
"I feel confident about this," said Boteler, a Carney printing company owner who finished fourth in his three-member district.
Democratic Del. Eric M. Bromwell easily took the top spot, followed by Democrats Todd Schuler, an Overlea lawyer, and Ruth Baisden, a Parkville community activist.
Schuler, who ran unsuccessfully for a House seat four years ago, paced between the rooms at the elections board. "I've put six years of my life into this one moment," he said.
Baisden and Bromwell also watched as workers fed the ballots into scanning machines.
"If this doesn't show you that every vote counts, I don't know what does," said Bromwell. "That's why we're standing here."
Workers started counting the 3,500 absentee ballots returned in the 8th District, and the more than 4,000 absentee ballots in the 42nd District. At 4:30 p.m., election officials stopped counting, saying they would resume at 9:30 a.m. today.
In Carroll County, workers finished counting nearly 6,000 absentee ballots as Zimmer increased his lead over Democrat Dennis E. Beard in a Board of Commissioners race to a 1,400-vote margin.
Still, Beard won a higher percentage of the vote than any Democrat has since 1990 - the last time a Democrat was elected to the three-seat commission.