Bill to reform elections administration in Maryland gets poor reception in House

February 18, 2005|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

A bill designed to prevent a repeat of the state Board of Elections' attempt to fire Elections Administrator Linda H. Lamone last year got a rough reception in the House of Delegates yesterday, where voting rights advocates and elections officials from both parties said it would ruin Maryland's election system.

The bill would eliminate the bipartisan Board of Elections, which is appointed by the governor, and instead concentrate virtually all power to make election policy in the hands of an administrator chosen by a group of state officials, nearly all of whom currently are Democrats.

Maryland's elections administration has come under strong scrutiny in recent months as voting rights advocates questioned the state's conversion to electronic ballots and Democrats decried the effort to oust Lamone. But no one spoke in favor of the bill up for a hearing yesterday.

"Any system in which an election administrator of long standing can suddenly be voted out two months before an election certainly warrants scrutiny," James Browning, the executive director of Common Cause/Maryland, told the committee. "But this bill is a cure that's worse than the disease."

Republican opposition to the bill was so strong yesterday that Senate Minority Leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus delayed for a day voting on the governor's slot machines gambling bill in protest of Democrats' decision to move up a Senate hearing on the measure. "We are very concerned about this bill, that it's a fast track," Stoltzfus said.

The House version of the bill is sponsored by Del. Sheila E. Hixson, a Montgomery County Democrat and chairwoman of the Ways and Means Committee, who said she was only putting it forward out of courtesy for the Senate sponsors, who include Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller.

She praised the testimony of the opponents. Many of them, she noted, had testified before the committee last fall about the need for reform in elections but yesterday were critical of the Senate's reform bill.

Miller said the intent of the bill is to remove politics from the process. Under the current system, he said, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. was able to appoint a Democrat to the board, Gene Raynor, who immediately worked with the Republicans to oust Lamone. The senators' proposal would prevent that kind of thing from happening in the future, he said.

"It's nothing political. No one is trying to seek an advantage, just to try to find a way to return a sense of fairness to politics," he said.

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