Democratic Baltimore mayoral race too close to call

REGINA GARCIA CANO and BRIAN WITTE
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Election 2020 Baltimore Mayor

FILE - This file photo combo shows, from left, Baltimore Mayor Bernard "Jack" Young, Sheila Dixon, Thiru Vignarajah, Mary Miller and Brandon Scott. Maryland residents are going to the polls and returning mail-in ballots for the state’s primary, and the highest-profile race Tuesday, June 2, 2020, is the Democratic contest to be the nominee for Baltimore’s mayor. (AP Photo/The Baltimore Sun via AP, File)

BALTIMORE (AP) — The race for the Democratic nomination for Baltimore mayor was too close to call Tuesday.

After polls closed, the city’s Board of Elections released mail-in votes received through late last week. But the slim margin of votes between the leading candidates made the race too close for The Associated Press to call without in-person vote counts and the outstanding mail-in ballots.

Based on the roughly 76,000 votes that were counted as of 2 a.m. Wednesday, former Mayor Sheila Dixon was leading the race, followed by City Council President Brandon Scott and former U.S. Treasury Department Undersecretary for Domestic Finance Mary Miller. More than 20 Democratic candidates, including incumbent Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, were on the ballot.

The coronavirus pandemic prompted the shift to a primarily mail-in election. City election officials placed the mail-in ballots in quarantine for about 12-24 hours and stopped counting them late last week in preparation for Tuesday’s election, said Armstead Jones, the director of the city board of elections.

It’s unclear when in-person vote counts will be released, but Jones said that the city will begin counting the remaining mail-in votes on Thursday.

Baltimore voters were looking for a leader who can get violent crime under control, address deep-rooted poverty and restore trust in local government. The mayoral race was the highest-profile contest on Maryland’s ballots Tuesday.

The winner of the city's crowded Democratic primary will likely become mayor. Democrats outnumber Republicans 10-1 in the state's largest city, making November’s mayoral general election mostly a formality. Baltimore mayoral races do not feature runoffs.

Elections officials allowed six in-person voting centers in Baltimore over concerns that ballots were not arriving in the mail as scheduled.

While polls were scheduled to close at 8 p.m. Tuesday, dozens were still waiting in line to cast their ballots two hours later, slowed by the limited number of people allowed in at one time because of social distancing requirements. In Baltimore, roughly 100 people were still waiting to vote at one of the city’s six voting centers around 10 p.m. Another location had about 50 people in line.

Baltimore's mayoral election came a year after City Hall was raided as part of a public corruption scandal that resulted in the resignation of then-Mayor Catherine Pugh. She was sentenced in February to three years in prison after pleading guilty to federal charges stemming from lucrative bulk sales of her self-published children’s books.

Annie Williams, 31, said she still had not decided who she would choose, even after an hour of standing in line to vote in person. She said Pugh’s corruption case motivated her to vote Tuesday.

“I think that in light of our last mayor, I just feel obligated to come out and make sure that we get somebody in office who I feel confident is not corrupt,” Williams said.

Williams said she was leaning toward voting for Miller or Vignarajah.

“They both have good platforms,” Williams said. “I feel like they both seem genuine.”

Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, who automatically ascended to the job after Pugh’s resignation, also asked voters to give him four more years but had admitted that his campaign was hampered by the amount of time he has had to focus on the city’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Tuesday’s outcome will ultimately be a referendum on Baltimore’s political class. Miller has never held a job at City Hall unlike Scott and Dixon, who is again trying to make a political comeback after being convicted a decade ago of misappropriating gift cards for the poor while in office. Her first attempt failed in a primary loss to Pugh in 2016.

On the Republican side, seven people ran for the job. Shannon Wright led the GOP primary race based on the votes cast as of early Wednesday.

Whoever emerges victorious in November will have to address low-income neighborhoods in need of investment, population exodus, failing and outdated public schools, and a homicide rate that not even the coronavirus pandemic has been able to slow.

The city set a new, grim record for homicides per capita last year, with 348 killings, and is on pace this year to match that rate.

Victor Ferguson, 35, said he was voting Tuesday because he believes local politics are the most important and determine funding decisions. He said the city has “a history of corruption” and that he wanted to participate in selecting the candidate.

“I at least want to be involved in determining if it’s a candidate that’s going to bring corruption to the city or justice and prosperity,” Ferguson said while waiting in line to vote at one of the city’s six in-person voting centers Tuesday.

Ferguson said he never received a ballot, so he went to a voting center. He had not made up his mind in the mayoral race.

“Strange enough, I am still kind of tossed up a little bit between a couple of candidates,” Ferguson said.

Maryland Rep. Kweisi Mfume won the Democratic nomination for a full term in the U.S. House seat once held by Elijah Cummings. Mfume prevailed Tuesday in a crowded primary that included Cummings’ widow. Mfume held the seat prior to Cummings in a majority-black district that includes parts of Baltimore and its suburbs.

Mfume easily won the seat in a special general election in April against Republican Kimberly Klacik. Klacik won the GOP primary on Tuesday to challenge Mfume again in November. Democrats hold more than a 4-1 edge on Republicans in the district.

Maryland voters also chose President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden as the nominees of their respective parties for U.S. president.