Polls show Bernstein's still leading in Baltimore state's attorney race

But incumbent questions whether the data is complete

September 16, 2010|By Tricia Bishop, The Baltimore Sun

The Baltimore Board of Election began counting and processing absentee ballots Thursday morning, as State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy planned to launch an examination of the vote-reporting process. Jessamy voiced concerns Wednesday that thousands of votes may be missing in a race that shows her opponent with a slim lead.

Jessamy, who has been state's attorney for 15 years, said she was not conceding the tight race before a more thorough review of voting procedures. Lawyers said she could mount a legal challenge if she is not satisfied with the accuracy of the outcome.

"She wants to be sure that these numbers reflect 100 percent of the votes cast," said state's attorney spokeswoman Margaret T. Burns. "It's going to be a tedious process."

Jessamy raised the questions as the elections board released numbers Wednesday showing that her challenger, Gregg Bernstein, won 49 percent of the primary votes cast at polling places, with Jessamy collecting 47 percent. Just 1,295 votes separate them.

Bernstein said in a statement that he was "pleased that the final results are consistent with the voting trends" that showed him with a narrow advantage. He declined to comment further.

The processing of more than 2,000 absentee and provisional ballots began at 10 a.m. Thursday and is set to last into next week. However, Jessamy is claiming that as many as 10,000 votes cast at polls may not have been counted. A political adviser, Pat Scott, collected his own figures at polling locations, and Burns said that his numbers don't match those released by the city elections board.

All votes must be certified by Sept. 24.

Earlier Wednesday, city Elections Director Armstead B.C. Jones Sr. acknowledged that certain information from voting machines in various districts had not been turned in, but would not identify the locations. He said the counts given by Wednesday afternoon reflected previously missing information.

A summary report printed at 4:27 p.m. was described as final, but contained information from 295 out of 298 precincts.

Of the three not included, one of those precincts is made up of absentee ballots, and another comprises provisional votes. Jones didn't know what the third precinct was, when interviewed Wednesday afternoon, and he did not return a message left at his home that evening.

Also not listed in the summary were results from three machines which Jones read aloud. The board's latest figures show Bernstein with 30,392 votes, Jessamy with 29,097 and Sheryl A. Lansey with 2,252.

If the lead holds, and he ultimately wins, it will be a remarkable upset. It is rare, in the absence of scandal, for incumbents to lose in down-ballot races, especially to a newcomer. Jessamy had the support of much of the city's black political leadership, including Rep. Elijah E. Cummings and former congressman and NAACP head Kweisi Mfume. The city hasn't had a white state's attorney since William A. Swisher lost to Kurt Schmoke in 1982.

But Bernstein is positioned for victory after one quick bid that lasted only a few months.

He gained the backing of many black voters, his supporters say.

"He's a white guy, nobody knows him, and he has, what, two months to do the damn thing? ... It's amazing," said Warren Brown, a well-known black defense attorney who backed Bernstein from the start.

Bernstein's campaign workers tracked demographic voting data, Brown said, and members saw a relatively strong showing in some majority-black precincts — 25 percent to 30 percent in some areas, according to early accounts.

Though Bernstein, a criminal defense attorney, is fairly high-profile in the legal community, this is his first bid for public office, and he has rarely spent time in the public eye. Still, his campaign, which promised to "fight crime first" through prosecution, resonated with city voters who agreed with his argument that Jessamy dropped cases too readily.

Precinct-level results won't be available until the middle of next week, according to the Baltimore elections board.

Byron Warnken, a lawyer and associate law professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law, said he was surprised by Bernstein's strong showing, and took it as a sign that the voting public pays more attention than he gave them credit for.

He also said the declaration of a winner could still be days away or longer, depending upon Jessamy's review of the votes. Warnken represented Ellen Sauerbrey when she contested the outcome of the 1994 gubernatorial election, which she lost to Parris N. Glendening by fewer than 6,000 votes, a challenge that lasted more than two months.

"Who knows, there may be litigation over [the same thing] in 2010," he said. Before that step, he added, "you've got to be able to do some homework, not just speculate, but to have some evidence … some reasonable suspicion."

According to Jessamy's spokeswoman, the prosecutor said she has "no assurances at this point" that the counts are complete, Burns said. Jessamy "has seen nothing."

Baltimore Sun reporter Jessica Anderson contributed to this report.

tricia.bishop@baltsun.com

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