ANNAPOLIS – After a heated partisan debate Wednesday, the Maryland Senate gave preliminary approval to a Democratic proposal to “depoliticize” the State Board of Elections, which along with its administrator has been ensnared in controversy for more than a year.
Originally, Democrats wanted to do away with the elections board entirely. But the compromise bill tentatively approved by all 33 Senate Democrats requires the governor to choose board Democrats from a list provided by the party’s central committee.
Republicans charged it would make it extremely difficult for the board to remove a bad administrator.
Democrats crafted the bill after what they called partisan maneuvering by Gov. Robert Ehrlich and other Republicans to force Elections Administrator Linda Lamone out just months before the presidential election.
Lamone, a hold-over appointed by former Democratic Gov. Parris Glendening, generated a bipartisan firestorm by backing the use of electronic voting machines without requiring that they generate a paper audit trail.
The machines, manufactured by Diebold, were criticized for being vulnerable to hacking, according to a Johns Hopkins University study released last July.
Republican election board members were joined by a maverick Democrat Ehrlich appointee in an attempt to oust Lamone in August. A judge stayed her removal saying it would disrupt the elections.
The bill that should see a final vote this week is an attempt to keep future governors from forcing out an administrator through similar tactics by requiring that the governor choose Democratic members of the board from a list supplied by the party.
Republicans offered eight floor amendments, arguing the bill could make it impossible to remove an incompetent administrator.
Without amendment, a jailed administrator who had committed a felony could still serve, protested Sen. David R. Brinkley, R-New Market.
Sen. Andrew Harris, D-Baltimore County, said even if the four other members of the Board of Elections found an administrator incompetent, the proposed law would leave that administrator in place until the next session of the Senate. But all eight amendments failed along party lines.
“This is a mean-spirited type of politics,” said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert, of GOP attempts to oust Lamone and run the board. “They just want to take control of things. They want a Florida situation.” He said the Republicans had wanted to use as a Democrat “someone trained by Newt Gingrich.”
“I’m not going to be letting right-wing Republicans handle Maryland elections,” he said.
“We need more checks and balances,” said James Browning, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland. “Both sides have sought to politicize the election board.” He said his group did support a 6-year term for the administrator to avoid political removals.