Green Party's candidate given a spot on ballot

Appeals court reverses rulings on petition names

Murphy in commissioner race

Decision shows disparity between state, local rules

Carroll County

October 01, 2002|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

The Maryland Court of Appeals ruled yesterday that a Green Party candidate for Carroll County commissioner must appear on ballots for the November election, overruling decisions by the county's board of elections and a Circuit Court judge.

George W. Murphy III will join seven candidates on the ballot, after attorneys for the Green Party successfully argued that election officials unfairly excluded signatures on petitions that would have made Murphy eligible. The decision was handed down hours before county election officials mailed their final ballot forms to the printer.

"The decision says that the court is defending the vitality of the ballots," Murphy said yesterday. "They're keeping as much diversity as possible in a state where the politics have been so sterile for so long. It really serves the best interest of the voter."

Green Party attorney Frank Dunbaugh argued at a hearing yesterday in Annapolis that while election officials might have followed the letter of the law, they let petty rules violate its spirit.

"Not all regulations serve important public policy interests," he told the court.

Election officials said they will respect the court's ruling, but feel their decision was correct.

"I know we did nothing wrong," said Pat Matsko, Carroll's supervisor of elections. "I know my people did their jobs correctly. ... The court's decision is not what I hoped it would be."

Carroll election officials ruled in August that Murphy, a teacher's aide from Sykesville, had failed to submit the number of validated signatures required for him to be placed on the ballot.

He delivered 1,006 signatures to the board Aug. 8, a few hours before the deadline, but the board validated 822 of those signatures - 18 short of the 840, or 1 percent of registered voters in Carroll, that Murphy needed.

In refusing to order Murphy onto the ballot last week, Carroll Circuit Judge Michael M. Galloway said he sympathized with the Green Party's efforts but said that because the election board's deadline for submitting ballots was five days away, he did not have time to review the signatures in question.

The Court of Appeals did not deliver a written opinion yesterday explaining its decision, but the justices pelted attorneys for the county and state boards of elections with questions about why residents who would be eligible to vote had not been counted as valid signatures on Murphy's petitions.

The attorneys said the county board had followed state laws by not counting signatures from inactive voters or from petition sheets that did not include the petitioner's address. Steven Sullivan, attorney for the state board, asked the court to uphold the county board's decision, because, "Otherwise, you'll be sending the message that following the rules is not a safe bet."

But Judge John C. Eldridge said during yesterday's hearing that the state constitution recognizes no difference between active and inactive voters. County election officials consider voters inactive after the post office returns correspondence intended for those voters and indicates they have moved. Inactive voters can vote if they show up on election day and confirm an address within the county.

State election guidelines, however, do not permit inactive voters to be counted as signatures on a petition. The court's decision might call those guidelines into question, Matsko said yesterday.

"It's all about ballot access," said David Stysley, Murphy's campaign manager. "It's hard to exist as a party if we can't get candidates on the ballot. The intent of the law is to allow more access and more participation for voters, not to create rules that cut down on voters' options."

Murphy, who ran unsuccessfully as a Republican in 1998, will have to restart a campaign that has remained dormant for months and has no money in its budget. He said he did not attend yesterday's court hearing because he was serving spaghetti to the homeless in Westminster, but he said he would appear at as many candidate forums as possible.

"We got such a good reaction during our petition drive that I told everybody, `Something good is going to happen,'" he said. "And it did. It just did with this decision."

His campaign will be part of the Green Party's effort to establish itself as a legitimate force in Maryland. The party ran its first Maryland candidate, Isaac Opalinsky, in last year's Annapolis city council race, but he lost decisively. A Green Party candidate, Beth Hufnagel of Howard County, is running for state comptroller this year.

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