Lawsuit challenges judicial elections

Unaffiliated voters say they're wrongly left out in party primary system

March 03, 2004|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

Michael B. Suessmann is a registered voter in St. Mary's County, but could not cast a ballot yesterday in its hotly contested race for Circuit Court because he has no political party.

"The current system is unfair to unaffiliated voters and it is unfair to the system itself," the 57-year-old lawyer said.

So he did what comes naturally -- filing a lawsuit last week, and joined in the action yesterday by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland Foundation and an unaffiliated voter in Anne Arundel County, home to another contested judicial race.

The suit is scheduled to be heard by a panel of three Circuit Court judges Friday in Leonardtown. It asks the panel to bar the state Board of Elections from certifying yesterday's judicial results in those two counties and to ensure that registered voters who refuse party affiliation can vote in Circuit Court primaries.

"Judges don't run with a political affiliation on the ballot. Why should only major party voters be permitted to vote?" said Deborah A. Jeon, an ACLU lawyer.

In Maryland, circuit judges appointed by the governor must run in the next major election for a 15-year term -- cross-filed in the Democratic and Republican primaries without party labels. If there are different winners in each primary, they will face off in the general election.

The suit has the potential to affect voters in every jurisdiction. Of nearly 3 million Maryland voters, some 400,000 are not registered with Democratic, Republican or Green party affiliation.

Donna Duncan, director of the election management division for the state Board of Elections, said unaffiliated voters are not permitted to cast ballots for Circuit Court seats because, unlike nonpartisan school board races, "it is not specifically permitted" and the applicable laws make a distinction in who can vote in the primary.

Increasingly, Circuit Court elections -- once-sleepy events that rarely drew challengers to sitting judges -- have become contested. In Anne Arundel yesterday, three judges shared yesterday's ballot with five challengers. St. Mary's had three candidates for one judgeship.

Voters "lose something by not being able to participate in the primary," Jeon said.

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