Democrat Kweisi Mfume leads in Maryland race to finish the late Rep. Elijah Cummings’ term

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BALTIMORE — Democrat Kweisi Mfume led his Republican rival in early returns Tuesday as the Baltimore area’s 7th Congressional District chose a successor to the late U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings in an election shaped by the coronavirus pandemic.

Most voters cast ballots by mail, some used drop-off boxes, and others still turned up to vote in person at polling places — just one site each in Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Howard County.

After a day of voting at those centers, state elections officials on Tuesday night released the results from ballots received by mail through Monday, with Mfume leading Kimberly Klacik 73% to 27%.

The Associated Press declared Mfume the winner at 8:18 p.m., about 10 minutes after the state’s results were posted.

The state elections board said it had received 110,524 completed ballots from the nearly 500,000 it mailed to eligible voters in the district — a turnout of about 23% as of Tuesday evening. Almost 75,000 of the ballots returned were from registered Democrats, about 23,000 were from registered Republicans, and more than 12,500 were from unaffiliated voters or those registered with other parties, officials said.

Democrats hold a 4-1 voter registration advantage in the district.

The health risks posed by the coronavirus pandemic gave Tuesday’s balloting a look and feel like no Maryland election before it.

With Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s state of emergency and stay-at-home orders still in effect, voters were encouraged by elections officials to mail in ballots. However, several voters said Tuesday they came to vote in person because they were concerned their completed ballots would get lost in the mail.

Signs at the voting centers advised voters to keep 6 feet apart, and mask-wearing campaign volunteers waved signs rather than approach voters. Election judges — some considered high risk because of their age — sat behind plastic shields, wearing protective gear.

In Howard County, plastic bags containing a surgical mask, pen and sticker were given to voters as they entered the polling site at the county fairgrounds in West Friendship. Hand sanitizer was available and in use.

At the Martin’s West catering hall off Interstate 695, the Baltimore County polling place, each voter was given his own pen to mark his ballot, rather than circulating pens among many people.

In Baltimore City, judges wore gloves, face shields and masks, while still handing the traditional “I Voted” stickers to voters. The high school’s hallways were marked with tape at 6-foot intervals in case lines formed.

Election workers constantly cleaned voting stations.

“It’s a learning experience. We’re doing the best we can,” said Judy Cranston, a Baltimore County election judge who has been working elections for more than a decade.

The winner of Tuesday’s race will fill the balance of Cummings’ term, holding the seat for the rest of this year.

Mail-in ballots began to be counted before Election Day. Officials said they would not announce the results of ballots cast in person Tuesday or received by mail after Monday until later in the week, with some further results expected Wednesday.

The election — Maryland’s first to be conducted almost entirely by mail — was partly a referendum on Cummings, a Baltimore civil rights icon who had a rare form of cancer. He had held the seat since 1996.

Cummings succeeded Mfume, who held the seat for a decade and was seeking Tuesday to reclaim it. Mfume, a friend of Cummings who spoke at his funeral, called Cummings’ tenure “excellent” and said he would be “the best successor.”

Mfume, a former NAACP leader and Baltimore City Council member, also touted endorsements from elected officials and faith leaders.

Klacik criticized Cummings’ representation as “horrible.” The founder of a nonprofit that helps disadvantaged women enter the workforce, Klacik appeared on Fox News last year to discuss videos she posted on social media showing trash and blight in the district, portions of which she has likened to a developing country. She is a backer of Republican President Donald Trump, who called the district “rat and rodent infested” after the videos appeared.

The mail-in system for Tuesday’s election, coupled with the pandemic that has kept many people at home and dominated news coverage, made it difficult to predict turnout. Turnout in February in the district’s special primary was about 18%.

Wendy Royalty of Ellicott City voted by mail for Mfume. But the ballot of her 18-year-old daughter, Tess Miller, never arrived in the mail, meaning the she had to vote in person. The backup option left Royalty satisfied with the process.

“The Board of Elections has done an amazing job switching over (to mail-in voting) so quickly,” Royalty said. “I was a little worried at first, but they’ve done an amazing job.”

State election officials reported Tuesday night that just over 1,000 people voted in person on Election Day. The polls closed at 8 p.m.

Hogan last month ordered the vote-by-mail election for the races originally scheduled for April 28. While he put off the state primaries that had been set for Tuesday to June 2, he kept the 7th District special general election on Tuesday.

Royalty said it’s important for the district to have a representative in Congress. The seat has been vacant since Cummings died in October.

“The governor did the right thing,” she said.

But the process didn’t work for every voter.

Felicia Woodland, 73, has cast a ballot in every election that she legally could. As a black woman, she said, her family hammered home how important it is to vote.

“It took us so long to be able to,” she said.

But she said her ballot for Tuesday’s election never arrived in the mail. So, she took two buses to Edmondson Westside High School to try and vote in person. When she went inside, she said election workers told her she had to fill out paperwork to vote. Her carpal tunnel syndrome was acting up too much, so she left without voting.

“May the best person win,” she said, resigned.

Maryland will repeat the entire process in June on a much larger scale. Ballots will be mailed to more than 4 million voters statewide for the presidential and Baltimore mayoral primaries and for all eight of Maryland’s seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The June primary will include 7th District candidates seeking a regular, two-year term beginning in 2021. Mfume and Klacik are on that ballot, but so are other candidates who ran against them in a special primary in February, including Cummings’ widow, Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, and state Sen. Jill P. Carter, both Democrats.

Mfume said often during the campaign that, if elected, his previous tenure would allow him to regain at least some congressional seniority, helping him move up the ladder toward leadership positions. It is up to House Democratic leaders to decide how much seniority a returning member gets.

Klacik pointed to conflict in Mfume’s tenure as NAACP president from 1996 until 2004. A review of records by The Baltimore Sun found Mfume left after the threat of a lawsuit alleging sexual harassment, several negative performance reviews and a vote by the executive committee of the NAACP’s board not to grant him a new contract.

Mfume declined an interview with The Sun about the Bond records, but said he took the organization from debt to a surplus, and received a raise in his final three-year contract in 2001. He said in a statement that “sometimes strong-willed leaders have differences of opinion” and that he and then-NAACP Chairman Julian Bond “were no different.”

Mfume said the voters in the district know him well.

“Judge me the way you’ve known me and have always known me,” he said during the campaign.


(The Baltimore Sun’s Luke Broadwater, Emily Opilo, Tim Prudente, Talia Richman and Pamela Wood and photographers Amy Davis, Jerry Jackson and Karl Merton Ferron contributed to this article.)


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