ANNAPOLIS – What’s happening in Florida can’t happen here, say Maryland election officials, because state law blocks partisan politics among election officials.
The presidential election hangs on the final vote total in Florida. Republican George Bush leads Democrat Al Gore by just 286 votes in the state, as state and county elections officials from different parties wrangle over whether deadlines should be extended to allow some ballots to be counted by hand.
Maryland law, unlike Florida law, states that election officials may not take an active part in party politics and campaigns. But the makeup of the boards of elections, both at the state and local levels, favors the majority party.
The Maryland Board of Elections is made up of five members, appointed by the governor to four-year terms, with three members from the majority party and two from the minority. Appointees are selected from lists furnished by, among others, the Democratic and Republican parties.
“I am constantly reminding the local board members that they are to make decisions on an impartial basis,” said Linda H. Lamone, the state administrator of elections.
Some Florida elections officials are elected, something that Lamone said shouldn’t be allowed: “I don’t think partisan politics belong in positions like that.”
Lamone, the chief Maryland election official, is appointed by the Board of Elections and has no term limit. She would not disclose her party affiliation.
There is a clear difference between who makes big election decisions in Florida and who makes them in Maryland, said Lamone.
Secretary of State Katherine Harris, a Republican, is the chief elections official in Florida. She decided to adhere to Tuesday’s deadline to certify the county vote totals, thereby ignoring those returns from counties that have not finished a hand recount. Critics charged she was taking sides.
If the same decision had to be made in Maryland, Maryland’s Secretary of State, John T. Willis, who has been active in the Maryland Democratic Party and the Democratic National Committee, wouldn’t be involved.
Instead, Lamone would recommend that decision to the State Board of Elections.
The Maryland Board of Elections “is a completely independent state’s agency,” said Lamone.
Willis does hold a position on the Board of State Canvassers, which look at vote totals following an election and declare winners, but it is just a “ministerial duty,” said Lamone.
Yet, the election process in Maryland is not non-partisan.
Election judges, those representatives of the election office in each polling place, can be involved in a political campaign with some restrictions, according to Maryland law.
Election judges are chosen by application and have to take an oath of office. They serve one election cycle. There is one Democratic and one Republican chief judge in each precinct.
The partisan division of election board members doesn’t taint the process, said Robin M. Downs, Prince George’s County acting elections administrator. “They don’t deal with the day-to-day operation,” said Downs.
Board members do have a say in the actual result, but can only reject ballots following a unanimous decision, said Downs.
And since the Maryland law pertaining to elections was revised in 1998, “the state board really has ultimate authority,” said Stuart Harvey, Montgomery County Board of Elections administrative specialist.
There is one way in which Florida and Maryland are alike. Both states will allow voters who make a mistake on their ballot to turn it into a poll judge for a new ballot for a total of three ballots – a provision many Florida voters wish they’d taken advantage of. The cause of some Florida recounts is that voters complained a confusing ballot caused them to mark their vote for Reform Party nominee Pat Buchanan instead of Gore.
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