Wednesday, November 5, 2008

ANNAPOLIS | A deluge of Maryland voters Tuesday approved a state constitutional amendment to legalize slot-machine gambling, but a bitterly fought contest to replace a longtime Republican representative on the Eastern Shore was too close to call.

With 1,241 of 1,829 precincts reporting (68 percent), the slot-machine amendment had received 848,797 yes votes (59 percent) and 591,615 no votes (41 percent).

Meanwhile, with 234 of 277 precincts reporting (84 percent), Frank M. Kratovil Jr., a Democrat, had received 132,890 votes (49 percent) and state Sen. Andrew P. Harris, a Republican, had won 130,055 votes (48 percent) in the race to replace Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrist, a Republican.

At a Kratovil rally at Fisherman’s Crab Deck in Grasonville, the mood was somber among the 120 people gathered there. Supporters remained optimistic, although a Democratic representative hasn’t been elected from Maryland’s 1st Congressional District since 1988.

“Three months ago, we were 16 points behind. Now we’re neck and neck,” said Steve Meehan, a Kratovil campaign official. “No one knows how this night will end.”

More than 250 Harris supporters crowded into Harris Crab House and Seafood Restaurant in Grasonville. Conversations were cut short as the crowd cheered or sulked over the volatile results.

Harris campaign volunteer David Marks noted the interest both parties had in trying to securing Mr. Gilchrist’s seat.

“When the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spends $2 million on the Democratic candidate in this district, it’s going to have an impact,” Mr. Marks said. “I still think Andy Harris can win this seat, but he would have won it by a healthier margin without that money.”

The conservative Club For Growth paid for $1.3 million in independent aid for Mr. Harris, as well as an additional $250,000 in direct contributions.

Richard Davis, a Libertarian, was also in the race, receiving about 2 percent of the vote.

In the presidential contest, Democratic nominee Barack Obama easily carried the mostly Democratic state, trouncing Republican nominee John McCain, 60 percent to 39 percent. Mr. Obama had 916,048 votes, and Mr. McCain 591,768 votes, with 70 percent of the state’s precinct reporting.

Slot-machine gambling has dominated state politics for the better part of the decade, moving from a routinely doomed bill in the General Assembly under former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, to a ballot measure drafted by Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, to voters Tuesday.

Despite legislative tweaks, little has changed in the arguments about the machines: Supporters say slots revenue is needed to improving schooling for children in kindergarten through grade 12, and critics say gambling is immoral and a tax on the poor.

“The way it was written — with the constitutional amendment — I’m opposed to it,” said Karen Oertel, co-owner of Harris Crab House. “During the Ehrlich administration, I was in favor of it. Interesting that the Democrats consider it a viable option now.”

The State Board of Elections, which had handled voter questions in past elections, called on more than 100 call-center staffers from InfoSpherix Inc., of Cumberland, to handle a wave of inquiries that had topped 8,000 calls by Tuesday afternoon.

“We just wouldn’t have been able to keep up with that,” said Ross Goldstein, deputy administrator for the state board, which expected about 85 percent of registered voters to cast ballots.

Long lines and long waits marked early-morning voting in Maryland, but much of that had dropped off by about 10 a.m. Elections watchdogs in Maryland reported an orderly, trouble-free voting experience by most people across the state.

“There were long lines and heavy turnout,” said David Rocah, a staff lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, which enlisted more than 60 volunteers to take phone calls and monitor polling stations Tuesday. “But in a democracy, that’s a good thing.”

Voters across Maryland on Tuesday sounded fairly settled on their decision to approve slot machines.

“If you don’t have money to gamble, don’t gamble,”said Judy Robinson, 65, of Hyattsville, after voting for the measure. “If you do, have a good time, and let the tax dollars accrue.”

The state’s Democratic leaders, who control the General Assembly and the governor’s office, are banking on slots to stave off future budget troubles and pay for commitments made during last year’s special session of the legislature.

Mr. Ehrlich, in his own last-minute appeal to voters, asked them to “send a powerful message to Annapolis” and vote against the slots plan.

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