By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 5, 2008 3:01 PM
Maryland and Virginia residents who voted by absentee ballot will determine the outcome of several races, including for two congressional seats, that remained too close to call after all precinct votes were tallied.
One contest, for the congressional seat in Southside Virginia, had narrowed to a six-vote margin this afternoon, part of a significant partisan shift underway for the state's congressional delegation. Democrats narrowed the GOP's 8-3 edge in the U.S. House delegation to 6-5 after claiming two Republican-held seats, and held out hopes of attaining a 6-5 Democratic majority, pending the outcome of the cliffhanger race for the GOP-held 5th District seat.
In Montgomery County, an anti-tax measure was succeeding by 600 votes, as county elections officials prepared to begin tallying absentee ballots tomorrow morning.
While several thousand fans of Sen. Barack Obama turned the streets outside the White House and other parts of the District into a late-night party with celebratory shouts, honking car horns and firecrackers, District police reported no major incidents or arrests.
"There were spontaneous expressions of celebration throughout the country, and we certainly had them here, but I'm not aware of any criminal activity," said Officer Kenneth Bryson, a District police spokesman.
As newspapers with headlines of Obama's historic victory sold out and some Democratic-leaning neighborhoods filled with newly placed American flags on front porches, local elections officials prepared to start counting outstanding ballots that will decide the close contests.
In Montgomery, all ballots should be tabulated by Nov. 21, , said Marjorie Roher, a spokeswoman for the Montgomery Board of Elections.
The anti-tax measure, named for its longtime champion Robin Ficker, would make it harder for the County Council to raise property taxes beyond a local cap that ties annual increases to the rate of inflation. The proposal, also known as Question B, would require a unanimous vote of all nine council members to override that cap, rather than the current requirement of seven votes.
The council bypassed the cap this year, allowing property taxes for the average homeowner to rise by 13 percent. The Ficker amendment was opposed by several large unions, all county council members and County Executive Isiah Leggett (D).
Ficker said he's "very optimistic" the absentee votes will go in favor of the measure because most were sent before the campaign opposing it heated up. He said he believes county residents are "fed up" with a series of recent hikes in state and local taxes and fees.
"You have this whole flotilla of tax increases coming down on people, and county officials still wanted more," Ficker said in an interview.
Montgomery Council member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville), who joined his colleagues in opposing the measure, said voters sent a message that they want the council to "spend less rather than tax more."
But Andrews warned that the amendment would give one council member too much power to hold up the budget and limit the council's flexibility "to avoid draconian cuts."
Montgomery voters who went to bed before the wee hours also discovered that three-term school board member Stephen N. Abrams was lagging behind challenger Laura V. Berthiaume by about 9,000 votes.
Abrams said he won't concede "until the official votes are in."
He said he believes his opposition last year to the teachers union's three-year contract is partly responsible for losing voters. The Montgomery Education Association endorsed Berthiaume.
"I didn't think it was affordable," Abrams said of the contract.
In Maryland's 1st Congressional District, which straddles the Chesapeake Bay, the race remained the most competitive of the state's eight U.S. House races. As of this morning, Democrat Frank M. Kratovil Jr. had 48.9 percent of the vote, leading over Republican Andy Harris's 48.6 percent, with 916 votes dividing them. So far, 25,500 absentee ballots have been received in that district, according to the state Board of Elections.
Both campaigns said they remained confident of winning.
"We just hope to see the same trend we saw with the other voting," said Kevin Lawlor, a spokesman for Kratovil.
Chris Meekins, a spokesman for Andy Harris, said he was certain the votes would fall in Harris's favor.
"We're confident that Andy will be the next Congressman, and at this point we're just waiting for the final results," he said.
In Southside Virginia, Rep. Virgil H. Goode Jr. (R) held a wafer-thin lead over Democrat Tom S.P. Perriello in the 5th Congressional District, with all precincts reporting. As of 11:30 a.m., the state Board of Elections showed Goode ahead by about 145 votes out of more than 314,000 cast. The district runs from a central portion of the North Carolina border north past Charlottesville.
Perrielo's campaign said he was far from conceding.
"Tom Perriello remains confident that when everyone's vote is counted he will win this election and move ahead with his agenda for economic revival in the fifth district," his campaign spokeswoman, Jessica Barba, said in a statement.
In the District, the Board of Elections and Ethics came under criticism for major delays in releasing returns. The unofficial final results were not available until 1:30 a.m., 5 1/2 hours after polls had closed and much later than many states had begun announcing outcomes.
"I've told them it's turning out to be an embarrassment," said Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3). "It seems to me that we could have a better balance."
Staff writers Tim Craig, Ann Marimow, Ovetta Wiggins and Nikita Stewart contributed to this report.