Contested Md. governor's election becomes part of course for Russians

THE POLITICAL GAME

July 19, 1995|By William F. Zorzi Jr. | William F. Zorzi Jr.,Sun Staff Writer

Not only was the 1994 Maryland governor's race one for the record books, it is becoming one for the textbooks, as well.

The November election, which Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey challenged after her loss to Democrat Parris N. Glendening by a mere 5,993 votes, has drawn attention from all over -- from Capitol Hill to Russia.

In fact, the election was featured by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) at a training session in Washington last week for 18 Russian election officials, in preparation for that country's elections in December.

The foundation, a private nonprofit group that trains foreign officials in the democratic process, set up the workshop because of concerns about open elections -- a new concept for Russia -- being "free and fair" by Western standards.

Widespread problems with the integrity of the elections would not only create problems with the international community, but more important, with the Russian people themselves, said N. Catherine Barnes, IFES' senior program officer for Europe and Asia.

The portion of the workshop involving the Glendening-Sauerbrey race was called "Adjudication of Complaints and Disputes" and used the Republican's court challenge as an example of "how to set up relationships between the election authority and the nongovernmental segment of society," she explained.

"Under the Soviet system, everything was the Communist Party," Ms. Barnes said. "But now there are established political parties -- in the plural -- watchdog groups and an independent media."

The IFES workshop was to explain the electoral process "from the perspective of the election authority, the political party and the mass media" and illustrate how the complaints are processed, she said.

Maryland's election has been investigated by supporters of Mrs. Sauerbrey and a host of others. For example, a judge considered the Republicans' allegations that the election was "stolen" by the Democrats during a five-day hearing in January -- the state's first such trial -- and found no evidence of fraud.

The election also has been the subject of an attorney general's investigation (which Sauerbrey supporters dismiss as a "sham"), media scrutiny and ongoing state and federal probes.

Among the invited speakers were a federal judge, lawyers, federal and local election officials. They also included reporters, who offered illustrations of how information about the challenge is made public "as the grievance is reviewed," thereby "making the system more accountable."

"Access and freedom of information is a continuing challenge in Russia, and it is helpful to demonstrate how it works here," Ms. Barnes said.

When it was suggested that perhaps freedom of information is not always the rule in this country, she countered, "Everything is relative."

Congress interested, too

The Glendening-Sauerbrey race also will be aired -- somewhat -- on Capitol Hill next week.

U.S. Rep. Bill Thomas, a California Republican who chairs the House Oversight Committee, is scheduled to hold hearings on the new federal motor-voter law, beginning Wednesday, and Maryland's race is sure to be mentioned.

But Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican from Maryland, cautioned that the hearings will not specifically focus on the problems and allegations of fraud in the gubernatorial election in November.

"I expect some of the problems experienced during the election may be discussed, as the committee evaluates the overall effectiveness of the motor voter law," Mr. Ehrlich said.

As an example, the congressman cited the Baltimore election board's failure to purge some 32,000 names from the voter rolls ** last year, before the statewide election, because the people had not voted in the previous five years.

Such purges became illegal Jan. 1 under the new federal law -- which prompted a lawsuit in Maryland earlier this year, when the state election board sued the city election board for refusing to purge the names. Ultimately, the Maryland Court of Appeals opined that the city election board was correct in refusing the order because the state's companion law to the motor-voter law prohibited the purge.

"This hearing is a necessary, serious-minded attempt to expose some of the problems [that] have resulted from implementing the motor-voter law," Mr. Ehrlich said, referring to the bill, which the GOP opposed in Congress. "It may also help to answer lingering questions about the 1994 gubernatorial election."

Break for independents

The Baltimore election board has agreed again this year to allow independents to vote in the Republican primary, Sept. 12.

The board voted at its June 29 meeting to allow those voters who "decline to affiliate" to vote for the GOP candidates running for city offices this year -- the third time since 1987, when the Republicans had to sue the board to open the primary.

In the city, where Republicans are outnumbered by Democrats 8-to-1 (32,398-to-276,162, as of June 29), that means that the 17,000 independents will be allowed to vote for the GOP candidates.

In the last two municipal elections, however, only about 1,000 independents have exercised their franchise, said Barbara E. Jackson, the city election administrator.

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