Sauerbrey's Challenge Wasn't Just Theater

January 22, 1995|By C. FRASER SMITH

As she watched the unfolding of her voter fraud case, Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey found it had all the drama of paint drying.

Her characterization was particularly true in contrast with the charges she had made after losing her race for governor last November. Fraud, she charged, threw victory to Parris N. Glendening.

In the weeks leading up to the trial, Mrs. Sauerbrey and her team waved the bloody shirt: The dead had voted. The unqualified living had voted. Nonexistent persons, invented for Election Day purposes, may have voted.

"More than turkeys were stuffed in Baltimore this Thanksgiving," one of her campaign documents declared.

What followed had to be a let-down. The procedures of law, designed to weigh inflammatory charges with fairness, make even the trial of O. J. Simpson seem tedious on occasion.

After a week of examining the allegations, Anne Arundel Circuit Court Judge Raymond G. Thieme Jr. ruled that Mrs. Sauerbrey had not made her case. Some aspects of Maryland's election system need to be changed, he said, but no fraud had been proven. Nothing had happened that cast the fairness of the election into doubt, he said.

Yet the case did have its moments of theater. It featured big political stars and big money. It was a "precedent-setting" election challenge in the state of Maryland. It might have forced a new race for governor. And it would provide a rare review of the way Maryland runs elections, with the possibility that rampant corruption might tumble into public view.

With the legislature out of session as the trial began and Gov. William Donald Schaefer the lamest of ducks, moreover, it was the only media game in town.

So, a garden patch of TV camera tripods sprouted in the picturesque courtyard on Church Circle in Annapolis. Teams of blue-suited legal talent with ponderous valises trooped through gauntlets of reporters. They needed little encouragement to stop and declaim.

The case had been endorsed by the Republican National Committee, which urged Mrs. Sauerbrey to sue; by conservative national newspaper columnists, by talk show hosts and by national stars of the resurgent GOP. New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman was on her side, sending down Republican Party staff members to help with research.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Republican of Georgia, sent thousands of dollars from his political action committee to underwrite the proceedings. Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, a likely candidate for president in 1996, was the keynoter at a fund-raising party needed to pay costs of record collecting and analyzing and the salary of Mrs. Sauerbrey's lead lawyer, John Carbone.

Yet even before the first witness was called, Mrs. Sauerbrey's lawyers conceded that she was not charging that any person had stolen the election. The case had become one of fraud by negligence or by sloth or by inefficiency, a far less grave and inciting assertion. Within days these same lawyers resigned from the case, suggesting displeasure with the evidencethey would be asked to present in court.

What the trial defense referred to as "scurrilous" charges devolved into what Deputy Attorney General Ralph S. Tyler III called a management audit. He and his co-defense team lawyers representing Mr. Glendening and others fought vigorously to keep Mrs. Sauerbrey from presenting various bits of testimony in

cluding computer tabulations which, they asserted, showed huge gaps between the number of votes cast and the number of voters.

The defense protested that the tabulations were a step removed from reliable election data, a product of experts and others who had an objective in mind.

Under this sort of scrutiny, the case seemed thin or so badly prepared that virtually none of the points raised at the start were sustained.

But her challenge does show that Maryland has neglected its Election Day machinery.

* About 10,000 judges are hired with increasing difficulty for each statewide election and paid less than $100 for that work. Since elections are held during the workweek, the talent pool is shallow: the unemployed, the elderly and others with nothing else to do are available.

* Each of the state's 24 political subdivisions has its own election system and few are state-of-the art in terms of technology.

* Baltimore authorities failed to remove inactive voters from their lists as required by law.

* Election machine keys in the city were not properly accounted for. Fortunately, the trial proceedings showed, the system is filled with security measures: two counters, for example: one works like an automobile odometer, the other like a trip meter. The permanent counter (odometer) logs every vote ever cast on that machine. The Election Day counter (trip meter) records votes cast in a given election.

A series of latches and seals and counters must also be negotiated. But a haphazard approach to keys cannot fill voters with confidence in the system's security.

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