Motives murky in board's move to oust Lamone

'94 gubernatorial election fallout, friction with former chief noted

September 05, 2004|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and suspended state elections chief Linda H. Lamone agree about the most pressing issue facing Maryland's elections board: the integrity of the state's new electronic voting system. And even the most staunch Republicans don't think Lamone, a Democrat, abused her power to help her party.

So leading Democrats in Annapolis say they can't understand why Ehrlich's board appointees went to great lengths to remove Lamone from office, a move they said carries great risk for the governor with little obvious gain.

But many Republicans believe strongly that not only does control of election procedures sway a close race, but that it already has.

There were no hanging chads or butterfly ballots in Maryland's 1994 gubernatorial race, but just as Democrats remain bitter over the Florida presidential recount four years ago, the disputed victory of Democrat Parris N. Glendening over Ellen R. Sauerbrey serves as a subtext to the GOP's move last week to replace Lamone with Prince George's County elections administrator Robin Downs Colbert.

"It was laughable to me when the Democrats were complaining about the Florida situation," said Edgewood lawyer Dan Earnshaw, who was a GOP member of the state elections board in 1994.

"In Maryland, we had absolute, overwhelming evidence of election fraud, and the massive control of the Democrats in the state was just able to cover it up," Earnshaw said.

Looking at the process

Sauerbrey took the matter to court, and a judge found her complaints insufficient to overturn the election or warrant a new vote. But the episode exposed wide discrepancies in election procedures around the state and raised doubts about the integrity of the process.

In response, Glendening created a task force, headed by George Beall, a Republican and former U.S. attorney for Maryland, to study the issue. Most of its recommendations were enacted into law, Beall said. One exception was the selection of the elections administrator.

The task force concluded that a major problem with Maryland elections was the lack of central control -- too many processes and procedures were dictated by local boards, not by the state panel.

Beall said the task force concluded that having an elections administrator appointed by the governor every four years would provide the muscle to institute reforms.

"I don't think partisanship really mattered," Beall said. "Perhaps it should have. Of course, at the time, there hadn't been a Republican governor for almost 30 years, so maybe people weren't thinking of it."

Differing opinion

A few years later, the General Assembly came to the opposite conclusion. It passed a measure that attempted to further insulate the post from gubernatorial control and made it difficult to remove the administrator.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, said the legislature concluded after the 1994 election that any hint of partisanship in the elections office would be unacceptable to voters.

"It's critical for the elections director to be above political influence," Busch said.

Lamone said last week that she has worked hard to professionalize the office and to make it "one of the finest in the nation." Her sole interest, she said, is "with the integrity of the elections process."

But observers on both sides of the aisle and from nonpartisan groups have expressed doubts. Many have questioned Lamone's role in purchasing and defending the new electronic voting machines. And some question whether the state board has done enough to make sure voting irregularities exposed in 1994 were corrected.

"The state election board never really took the bull by the horns and dealt with it," said state Sen. Andrew P. Harris, a Baltimore County Republican.

Carol L. Hirschburg, a Republican consultant, said she has known Lamone for decades and doesn't question her professional integrity. But Lamone is hardly apolitical, Hirschburg said.

"She has always been politically involved. In fact, she was one of Parris' lawyers in the court fight in 1994," Hirschburg said. "It's highly understandable why Republican activists would feel uneasy about that."

Adversarial relations

The elections board voted behind closed doors Thursday to suspend Lamone with pay and to file charges to remove her from office for "incompetence, misconduct or other good cause." A state administrative judge will hold a hearing on the charges next month.

Lamone is fighting the suspension. She asked the Anne Arundel Circuit Court on Friday to stop her removal. Her request will be considered in a hearing Tuesday.

The drive for Lamone's removal intensified this summer when Ehrlich appointed Democrat Gene M. Raynor, who was state elections administrator during the disputed 1994 election. Sauerbrey called on him to resign in the midst of the dispute, though he did not.

Raynor retired in 1997, and Lamone replaced him. The two have had occasional unkind words for each other since.

Last year, Raynor called Lamone a "political animal" and said, "Ehrlich should throw her out on her ear."

On Friday, Lamone said the office she inherited from Raynor "was in shambles."

The elections board did not reveal how its members voted on the motion to suspend Lamone, so it's unclear whether Raynor agreed with the action. He was out of town Friday and unavailable for comment.

Raynor's appointment to the board is the product of a more recent political dynamic. Raynor is a close ally of Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, who has become a backer of Ehrlich and sharp critic of Mayor Martin O'Malley, a potential Democratic gubernatorial candidate in 2006.

Lamone's replacement, Colbert, worked for Raynor in the state elections office.

Democrats who oppose Lamone's ouster say they don't understand all the motives behind the move. But they're sure of one thing.

"It's politics," said Sen. Ulysses Currie, a Prince George's County Democrat. "I'm certain it's politics."

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