For pure politics, it doesn't get any better than this

September 19, 2004|By C. Fraser Smith

ONCE AGAIN, a judge has intervened to bring sanity to a bit of Annapolis hijinks.

Several weeks ago, Circuit Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan of Baltimore ordered the various parties to stop tormenting city school officials, who are doing their best to deal with a horrendous financial situation. Sometimes we need to have an "activist judiciary" because other branches of the government are behaving badly.

Last week, for example, Circuit Judge Ronald A. Silkworth of Anne Arundel County concluded that efforts to oust the state's elections chief are ill-timed, an invitation to chaos. Marylanders and the nation, he observed, are electing a president in November.

We are talking about a painfully public and high-handed attempt to claim the just deserts of politics, including tighter control of the election process. The Republicans want the job now held by Linda H. Lamone, a holdover appointee from the previous Democratic administration. Under the rules of the political game, this is right and just. As an assault on the public interest - on the stability needed to promote voter confidence - it's malfeasance.

This nation and this state have been through enough turmoil in the election sphere. Florida is the poster child. In Maryland, Republicans lost the governorship by a relative whisker in 1994. They sued, claiming an array of malfeasances. Felons had voted illegally. The dead had voted. People who had moved to Saskatoon in 1970 had voted. In court, the plaintiff Republicans proved not a single one of their allegations. They were certain they had been defrauded by an election apparatus run by, among others, Gene M. Raynor, now retired as elections chief.

There are those who feel the attempted purge of Ms. Lamone is payback for 1994. It's odd, though. Mr. Raynor was appointed to the State Board of Elections by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. He denies it, but many see Mr. Raynor as the governor's designated hatchet man. But isn't he the one who, the GOP claims, presided over a stolen election?

And that's only the first of the angles. Mr. Raynor is an old ally and friend of Comptroller William Donald Schaefer. Was he named to the election board as a favor to Mr. Schaefer? The governor has done a masterful job of keeping Mr. Schaefer - still a popular figure in Maryland - on the Ehrlich team.

Next we get to the issue of Ms. Lamone's performance. The law says a person in her job can only be removed for cause - not for the purposes of opening the job for a Republican or Democratic appointee. When she declined to walk the political plank, fault had to be found. Charges were prepared by a special investigator. The bill of particulars he delivered should have "Trumped Up" stamped all over them. By one account, she had "whined" about something. If that is a firing offense, we should all be updating our rM-isumM-is.

Usually, the election boss loves anonymity. Ms. Lamone has gone public to defend the new touch-screen voting machines - and to oppose a paper trail that would assure voters the machines have recorded votes as cast. She says the machines can be trusted.

Here's an area where she's been faulted, but the Ehrlich administration agrees with her. How inconvenient, then, that Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski inadvertently misvoted last weekend in a demonstration of the system's perfection: She voted "no" but the machine recorded a "yes." A Mikulski aide said the senator had inadvertently brushed the "yes" button. Surely some explanation of this sort was essential lest the senator be responsible for calling into question the entire system. My, my.

Oh, and did we mention that the machines are manufactured by Diebold Election Systems, which until recently was a prominent national Republican Party contributor? Should anyone wish to see the nexus between campaign contributions and policies that affect you and me, this might be it.

To establish the paper trail this year would have been logistically difficult. Expensive, too, no doubt. But we went to the moon, didn't we? You can get a machine-produced receipt for a cab ride in some cities.

But vendettas are so much more entertaining. They don't cost much. And if they get out of hand, a judge can step in.

C. Fraser Smith is news director for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays.

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