Elections target

August 30, 2004

ONCE UPON a time, the job of state administrator of elections was perceived as virtually apolitical, a kind of independent referee of voting. The job is filled by the state Board of Elections, a bipartisan panel. Admittedly, the sitting governor gets a big say in the choice because he appoints the board, but the appointee doesn't serve at his pleasure and the office has no term limit. The administrator can be fired (at least four of five members must agree), but the board has to show cause. Sounds reasonable, right? Not to the Ehrlich administration.

Recently, a veteran internal affairs investigator from the state's public safety department was assigned to dig up dirt on Linda H. Lamone, the current administrator. That's a highly unusual development. Sgt. Edmund O'Leary, the investigator detailed to the job, normally spends his days looking into allegations of prisoner abuse, employee misconduct or perhaps an inmate stabbing. Elections aren't his thing.

Administration officials insist that the investigation is not of a criminal nature. So what gives? Apparently, the board asked for help investigating its own administrator, but board members aren't talking about much beyond that. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. claims to have no involvement.

This much is known: Mr. Ehrlich wants Ms. Lamone ousted. She's a holdover from the Glendening years, and he wants his own person. Ms. Lamone is a former assistant attorney general and a lobbyist in Annapolis, but she's never been perceived as partisan. Republicans want firmer control over election procedures for strictly partisan purposes (e.g. Florida's ballot-counting procedures in 2000). And one can speculate that Mr. Ehrlich's appointees are primed to exploit any ammunition they can find.

If that's so, the Ehrlich administration has entered some dangerous territory. Democrats in the legislature claim Ms. Lamone is the victim of a witch hunt. Certainly, the whole thing smacks of Richard Nixon and his enemies list. Is Ms. Lamone doing a poor job? A March legislative audit of her agency offered only modest criticism, suggesting, for instance, that closer supervision of local election boards is needed. That's hardly scandalous.

The one criticism of Ms. Lamone's performance that seems warranted is her handling of the new touch-screen electronic voting machines. Legitimate concerns about the system's security didn't move her (or the board) to require a "paper trail" of ballots. But this isn't the governor's beef. He has publicly supported the new system -- and the board's $55 million contract with Diebold Election Systems.

So what has Ms. Lamone done to warrant such a fuss? If the answer is nothing, the next investigation needs to be directed at Mr. Ehrlich's appointees on the Board of Elections. There's a strong case to be made for abuse of power.

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