Capital Notebook

Capital Notebook

March 30, 2006

Senate Republicans' vote proposals fail

Senate lawmakers engaged in a grueling partisan debate yesterday over voting procedures for the fall elections. Republicans unsuccessfully sought to adopt measures they said would safeguard against fraud, while Democrats accused the GOP of trying to suppress voter turnout.

The Senate adopted legislation to provide more polling places on college campuses, sending it to the governor's desk. But the most heated discussion was over a flurry of amendments offered by Republicans that opened a broader debate over the state's voting policies.

Many Republicans expressed anger over previously adopted legislation that would enable voters to receive absentee ballots for any reason, to vote through provisional ballots if their names were not on file at polling places, and to cast votes in some precincts that would be open for five days before Election Day.

In a last-minute scramble, conservative lawmakers offered proposals to delay early voting and require voters to show identification at polls, among others. But their attempts were rejected.

Sen. Sandra B. Schrader, a Howard County Republican, attempted an amendment that would require the state to ditch its current electronic voting machines in favor of a one-year lease of an optical scan system that offers paper verification. The amendment was identical to a measure passed unanimously by the House two weeks ago, requiring Maryland to use a paper ballot system this fall.

But the issue is still being debated by a Senate committee.

Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, a Democrat from Baltimore County and chairwoman of the education health and environmental affairs committee, said yesterday that the legislature will pass a bill requiring a voting system with a paper trail, but the committee is mulling its options.

"We are trying to reach a consensus on what we can do," she said. "But we will pass a paper trail that will go into effect this fall."

Kelly Brewington

Broader reach for police panel

The House of Delegates approved a measure to grant a Baltimore board that reviews police harassment cases the authority to investigate allegations of false arrests.

But even lawmakers who supported the legislation to empower the city's Civilian Review Board said the bill fails to confront what they call the city's pattern of aggressive arrest procedures. The bill passed 122-16 this week and now heads to the Senate.

"I agree with it. [The board's] rights should be extended," said Del. Jill P. Carter, a Baltimore Democrat. "But we shouldn't make the Civilian Review Board pick up the slack for the Police Department."

Another bill to provide Police Department scrutiny has died. A measure to automatically expunge the records of what advocates estimate as tens of thousands of people arrested and released without criminal charges was rejected last week by a House committee.

City lawmakers filed three bills to expunge the records of people arrested on nuisance violations, one sponsored by Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley. The mayor and city Police Chief Leonard D. Hamm had been under fire over arrests some advocates called illegal.

The Baltimore state's attorney's office declined to prosecute about 25,000 arrests last year -- nearly one in three arrests by officers who believe they have observed a crime, it said. The Baltimore Police Department estimates the figure is closer to one in five.

"I was for the expungement bill, but I never considered it a fix to the problem of illegal and false arrests," said Carter. "Everyone seemed to agree from the City Council to the citizens that at a minimum expungement of records could help. It's a shame it didn't happen."

Kelly Brewington

Steele hires ex-Democrat

Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele announced another new hire yesterday in his bid for the U.S. Senate.

Steele, a Republican, has hired a former Democratic staffer to be his deputy campaign manager. Marcus Reese once worked for the Democratic Party in Georgia and later took a position with the Republican National Committee in Washington.

This month, Steele also named a new campaign manager, Michael Leavitt from Maine. The campaign is still without a permanent spokesman after Leonardo Alcivar left the campaign earlier this year.

Steele, formerly head of the Maryland Republican Party, is seeking to replace the retiring Democratic Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes. Steele has no serious competition in the GOP primary. On the Democratic side, hopefuls include Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin and former Rep. Kweisi Mfume, former head of the NAACP.

Associated Press

Franchot chastises Ehrlich

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. distributed a press release this week saying he "authorized distribution of $25.8 million" for cities and counties to fix roads, but a key lawmaker said the governor should not be taking credit for spending money he tried to block.

In his release, Ehrlich said, "we have found a way to restore this important funding that the legislature cut in last year's legislative session."

But Del. Peter Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat and head of a subcommittee that oversees transportation funding, said the money was always available, and that Ehrlich's transportation secretary fought against its distribution.

"Governor, I have one question for you: Have you no shame?" Franchot said in a letter to Ehrlich yesterday.

"Given the recent history, your eagerness to take credit when you were the sole opposition is disingenuous and does nothing but erode public confidence in the veracity of our state elected officials," wrote Franchot, who is running for state comptroller.

David Nitkin

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