Court reaffirms legality of paying workers for Election Day activities

Law banning payments violated rights, judges say

March 17, 2004|By Walter F. Roche Jr. | Walter F. Roche Jr.,SUN STAFF

Slamming the door on virtually any restrictions on paid Election Day campaign activities, the Maryland Court of Appeals issued a 33-page opinion yesterday justifying its September decision to strike down a state law barring the use of so-called walk-around money.

The opinion, written by Chief Judge Robert M. Bell, concludes that despite its apparent good intentions, the 25-year-old statute prohibiting the payment of workers to hand out materials on Election Day unduly restricts free speech in violation of the U.S. Constitution.

The opinion represents the final chapter in a criminal case that dates to the Nov. 5, 2002, gubernatorial election won handily by Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. Three workers for Ehrlich were charged with violating the law by recruiting students and residents of a Washington homeless shelter to hand out campaign materials in Prince George's County.

The three were indicted by a county grand jury, but the case was thrown out by Circuit Judge Richard H. Sothoron Jr., who concluded the law was unconstitutional. The Court of Appeals upheld that decision Sept. 4.

"All of the activity at which the statute is aimed, in fact, directly impedes the ability of the candidate to convey his political message," the opinion issued yesterday states.

State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli said the emphatic decision leaves no chance for a replacement statute and he has abandoned efforts to get one. "We're not going to pursue it at all," Montanarelli said. "It would be difficult to get around the First Amendment issues."

He had argued that the statute was a limited and necessary restriction to prevent even the perception of corruption and vote-buying.

The court, however, concluded that the evidence presented by Montanarelli was not compelling. The prosecutor had noted the legislative debate preceding passage of the statute in 1979 and a series of newspaper articles about Election Day abuses. The opinion notes that other state laws are in place barring vote-buying.

The walk-around money law, the opinion says, "is superfluous and redundant and, thus, is not the least restrictive" means of achieving the goal of preventing vote-buying. "Moreover we are unconvinced that there exists the appearance, not to mention the actuality, of vote-buying when a candidate pays individuals to campaign on his or her behalf on election day."

The ban was implemented after a scandal involving former Gov. Marvin Mandel, who was charged with using his position for the gain of friends and campaign donors. The use of walk-around money in Baltimore elections reportedly dates to the days of poet Edgar Allan Poe.

"We are not remotely convinced that the decision of a candidate to spend money conveying his or her message by hiring individuals to hand out literature one-on-one to the voters creates any greater appearance of voter support than any other election day activity," Bell wrote.

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