Candidate failed to vote for years CAMPAIGN 1994 -- CONGRESS 6TH DISTRICT

August 11, 1994|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,Sun Staff Writer

Neil S. Dhillon is asking voters in Maryland's 6th District to elect him congressman, but for most of his adult life, he never cast a ballot himself.

Mr. Dhillon, now 32, first voted in 1980 when Ronald Reagan won the White House. He did not vote again -- in either a state or a national election -- until 1992, when Bill Clinton ousted George Bush.

Ironically, during his years away from the ballot box, Mr. Dhillon was otherwise immersed in the democratic process -- studying political science at American University in Washington and working as a congressional staffer on Capitol Hill.

While serving as legislative director for then-6th District Congresswoman Beverly B. Byron in 1988, he did not even vote for her re-election, Allegany County records show.

By contrast, Mr. Dhillon's six opponents in the Sept. 13 Democratic primary have all voted regularly in recent years, according to election records.

Mr. Dhillon says he failed to vote for a variety of reasons, including long hours on Capitol Hill, two address changes and what he called the failure of county officials to tell him his registration had lapsed.

Ultimately, though, he says the responsibility is his.

"I had every intention of voting," said Mr. Dhillon. "It's my mistake and I'll take the hit on it."

Some of his Democratic rivals were quick to criticize his lengthy hiatus from the voting booth.

"I can't believe that someone who has been so closely associated with government -- in the hub of democracy -- would have failed to participate," said rival Democrat Paul Muldowney, a former state delegate from Hagerstown. "If I were a voter in the 6th District, I would question his sincerity."

For the record, Mr. Muldowney has cast ballots in every primary and general election since at least 1968, when he registered to vote in Washington County at age 32.

Mr. Dhillon's voting record -- or lack thereof -- is the first kink in his well-financed campaign for congress. A former Clinton administration official, Mr. Dhillon burst on the Western Maryland political scene early this year after amassing a $242,000 war chest that dwarfed his rivals' fund-raising efforts. Mr. Dhillon's parents are from India and many of his donations came from members of the Indian community in Maryland and other states.

Mr. Dhillon, who describes himself as a moderate Democrat, is running for the right to take on incumbent Republican Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett -- the expected GOP nominee -- in the Nov. 8 general election. The 6th District covers Western Maryland, Carroll County and most of Howard County, including Ellicott City and part of Columbia.

Allegany County election records show Mr. Dhillon registered to vote in 1980 when he was 17. He voted in both the primary and general elections that year after turning 18.

In 1986, however, his name was removed from the Allegany County voting rolls -- as required by state law -- because he had not voted during the previous five years.

He registered to vote again in 1991 in Cumberland. He voted in the primary and general elections of 1992, according to county records.

Mr. Dhillon said legislative work got in the way of voting at times. "When you try to take the time off on election day, sometimes you can, sometimes you can't," he said.

Asked if his bosses on Capitol Hill ever told him he didn't have time to vote on election day, Mr. Dhillon responded, "Of course not. Obviously, they encourage you to do so."

In 1988, Mr. Dhillon said he attempted to vote by absentee ballot and offered conflicting stories about why his effort failed. "Obviously, I wanted to vote for Mrs. Byron," he said.

Mr. Dhillon said he went to the polls in 1990 -- only to learn that he had been removed from the voting rolls four years earlier under state law. He said he wished the election board had notified him.

dTC "It's like getting a speeding ticket," Mr. Dhillon said. "You're going to be notified by mail if you get a speeding ticket" and fail to pay, he said.

Mr. Dhillon also attributed his lapse in voting to his changes of address. He moved to Washington to attend American University in the early 1980s and later moved to Gaithersburg, he said.

He never changed his registration from Cumberland, though, which is a two-and-a-half hour drive from Gaithersburg. He said he wanted to keep his registration in Cumberland because he considers it home.

"If I had to do it all over again, I would have changed my residency to Gaithersburg," Mr. Dhillon said. "That's where I made my mistake."

Mr. Dhillon says he hopes his voting record won't obscure his years of public service as a congressional staffer. He began as an unpaid intern at age 22 and rose to an $82,000-a-year job as chief of staff for California congressman Robert T. Matsui by age 27.

While with Mrs. Byron, he worked with the federal Small Business Administration and the Pentagon to help gain military contract work that kept the London Fog plant in Boonsboro open, he said.

"No one's perfect," he says. "I've learned my lesson and I'll be registered from here on in."

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