GAITHERSBURG, Md. (AP) — Election officials in five counties began counting absentee ballots Thursday that will likely resolve the race for U.S. representative in Maryland’s 6th Congressional District.

First-term Democratic U.S. Rep. John Delaney led Republican Dan Bongino by 2,016 votes out of nearly 182,000 cast after Allegany, Frederick and Garrett counties reported their canvass results Thursday. Officials were also counting absentee ballots in part of Montgomery and all of Washington counties.

Washington County Elections Director Kaye Robucci said her board won’t have results until Friday.

Delaney claimed victory a day after Tuesday’s election, but Bongino, a former Secret Service agent, hasn’t conceded.

Bongino said in a telephone interview Thursday that the election’s outcome should be clear by Friday.

“If the writing was on the wall, we certainly would concede,” he said. “Everybody wants a free and fair outcome.”

Bongino also raised the possibility that a pending civil lawsuit alleging voter fraud could affect the outcome of the race. The lawsuit filed last month by activists in U.S. District Court in Baltimore contends they found evidence of non-U.S. citizens registered to vote in Frederick County, and asserts the same situation exists statewide. The state Board of Elections has acknowledged a possibility that some noncitizens have voted since state and local election boards have no system for verifying the citizenship of voter registration applicants.

Of nearly 6,400 absentee ballots returned in the 6th District, about half are from Delaney’s home county of Montgomery. He won 61 percent of the vote at polling places there. Bongino ran strongest in western Maryland, which is more conservative but less populous than the Washington suburbs in Montgomery and Frederick.

Montgomery County Board of Elections President Mary Ann Keeffe said her panel would focus first on the 6th District race in hopes of reporting at least a partial count from there by Thursday night.

“We recognize that the contest in the congressional race is close and that people like to get things finalized as quickly as possible,” Keeffe said before the process began in a nondescript office building behind a Gaithersburg strip mall. Then 12, two-person teams of canvassers began opening and examining mailed-in ballots. Those deemed to have been properly cast were to be counted by an optical scanning machine at the end of the day.

Both candidates sent observers to the proceedings.

Delaney campaign spokesman Will McDonald, observing the Montgomery County canvass, said counting every vote is important “but we remain confident that when all the votes are tallied, John Delaney will be the clear winner of this election.”

(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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