Kratovil expands slim lead in 1st

Harris camp cries foul over 'nitpicking' in Harford count

Election 2008

November 07, 2008|By Matthew Hay Brown and Mary Gail Hare | Matthew Hay Brown and Mary Gail Hare and,matthew.brown@baltsun.com and mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

Democrat Frank M. Kratovil Jr. saw his slim lead over Republican Andy Harris more than double yesterday as election judges began to open absentee ballots in the 1st Congressional District.

In totals that now include absentee ballots from Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties - Republican strongholds where Harris had hoped to close the gap with his rival - Kratovil has expanded his lead to more than 1,800 votes.

The 40-year-old prosecutor from the Eastern Shore now appears on the verge of an upset in a district that has been held by the GOP since 1991, a victory that would give Democrats their seventh out of Maryland's eight House seats and further increase the party's congressional majority.

"We're still in a holding pattern right now, but we're glad to be the ones in the lead," Kratovil spokesman Chris Lawlor said.

The count was slowed yesterday in Harford County - the only other county won by Harris at the polls on Tuesday - when observers for the Kratovil campaign raised concerns about how the ballots were being handled.

The objections delayed the start of the count by more than three hours. The Harris campaign cried foul.

"This is a clear case of trying to disenfranchise voters in an area where [Kratovil] did not do well," Harris campaign manager Chris Meekins said. Harris led Kratovil by 17 percentage points in Harford County in Tuesday's voting.

Lawlor said the Kratovil campaign had not made a formal complaint.

"It's not anything out of the ordinary to look at the procedures or the actual ballots themselves so that if something is procedurally done wrong to make note of it and to look back at it," he said. "I'm sure we'll see different individual ballots, groups of ballots contested from both parties."

Kratovil and Harris remained out of sight as elections boards in 12 counties began counting more than 25,000 absentee ballots in what has been a bitterly contested race. The district, now represented by moderate Republican Wayne T. Gilchrest, includes the Eastern Shore and parts of Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Harford counties.

With eight counties reporting absentee ballots yesterday, Kratovil's lead over Harris grew from 915 to 1,871 of the more than 340,000 votes counted so far. Libertarian candidate Richard James Davis loomed as a spoiler with 8,259 votes.

The tally does not include absentee ballots from Harford, which are expected to favor Harris, or those from Cecil, Talbot and Worcester counties, where Kratovil was ahead on Election Day.

Absentee ballots had to be postmarked by Tuesday to be counted. The process will be kept open through Nov. 14 to allow time for ballots to arrive at the county boards of elections. An unknown number of provisional ballots are to be considered beginning Monday.

In an ordinary election year, the 1st District would be an easy hold for the GOP. But an open seat, a difficult political climate for Republicans and lots of outside money gave the Democrats an opening.

Kratovil, the state's attorney for Queen Anne's County, ran as a pro-environment moderate in the mold of Gilchrest, who was defeated by Harris in a contentious Republican primary.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which is chaired by Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Montgomery County, spent more than $2 million trying to turn the district from red to blue, and House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Southern Maryland also campaigned for Kratovil.

Harris, a 51-year-old state senator from Baltimore County, had the support of former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and the anti-tax Club for Growth.

At Harford's elections board headquarters in Forest Hill yesterday, the count got off to a slow start when Kratovil supporters raised several concerns about the process.

They said boxes containing ballots had been opened prematurely and seals on ballots had been broken improperly. They also questioned ballots that lacked dates, and ballots in which voters printed rather than signed their names.

County election director James E. Massey Jr. said the Kratovil supporters were "just nitpicking." Meekins, the Harris campaign manager, called their objections "extremely disappointing."

"Apparently he only values the voters who are voting for him, not ones that may have a different opinion," he said.

Sky Woodward, an attorney observing the count for Harris, said the Harris side had not challenged any ballots. Del. Susan K. McComas said complaints from the Kratovil camp sent "a chilling message."

"A lot of us, myself included, voted absentee," said McComas, a Harford Republican. "Now we are down to comparing signatures. This is supposed to be a secret ballot."

The count, which was scheduled to begin at 10 a.m., didn't get under way until 1:30 p.m.

Lawlor described the objections as "an effort to keep the process open, transparent and to count all the votes."

"The reason they do all this, the reason we send observers there, is not to slow down the process, but it's to protect the voters and protect the people who filled out their absentee ballots and make sure that there was no voter fraud or anything like that," he said. "So we'll be doing our best to make sure that everything goes according to plan, and that's what they're doing in Harford County."

The campaigns said counting at the other 11 county boards appeared to go smoothly.

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