Perez can't be taken off ballot, officials say

August 29, 2006|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,SUN REPORTER

State elections officials sent word to Maryland's highest court yesterday that it would be "impossible" to adhere to its order to remove attorney general candidate Thomas E. Perez from the ballot in time for the Sept. 12 primary.

Instead, elections officials asked the Court of Appeals to allow them to prominently post signs at polling locations and send inserts with absentee ballots to voters warning that a vote for Perez would not count.

"We're holding up on programming more [voting] machines," said Robert J. Antonetti Sr., interim elections director in Prince George's County. "Until the court rules, we're in limbo."

On Friday, the appeals court disqualified Perez from the race because he did not have the constitutionally required decade of legal experience in Maryland. Perez, 44, spent most of his career working as an attorney for two federal agencies in Washington. He was not admitted to the Maryland bar until 2001.

According to state elections officials, Stephen N. Abrams, a candidate for comptroller who filed the legal challenge to Perez's candidacy, did not object to leaving Perez's name on the ballot. Elections officials, however, were not able to reach Perez's attorney.

Perez is expected to address supporters and the press today.

His disqualification left two candidates in the Democratic primary for attorney general, Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler and Stuart O. Simms, a former Baltimore state's attorney.

Elections officials believe the only Maryland precedent for their solution occurred in the 1980s, when a candidate for office died after all of the ballots had been printed. Signs were posted and notices mailed, said Nikki Baines Trella, director of election reform for the state Board of Elections.

In the era of electronic voting, however, last-minute changes are more complicated than re-running the printing presses. In yesterday's filing, the state outlined about 10 steps needed to remove Perez from thousands of already-sealed electronic voting machines, which were not to be opened before the primary.

Officials estimated that they would need to work 24 hours a day every day until the primary to fix the ballots.

"Attempting to complete this process under such circumstances presents significant hurdles to assuring that sufficient machines will be available to make voting practical and possible," the motion stated.

Officials also will be busy managing other changes on Sept. 12, including a new electronic check-in system for voters and, in Baltimore, new voting machines.

In addition to disqualifying Perez on Friday, the appeals court rejected laws passed by the General Assembly to establish early voting in Maryland. The court's action canceled five days of early voting, a period that was set to begin Sept. 5, leaving absentee ballots as the only way to cast a vote before election day.

"Every election I say, `This is the worst one,'" said Patricia K. Matsko, director of the Carroll County Board of Elections. "And each election we get through it. It just seems that so many unknowns keep cropping up and popping up, that we didn't prepare or plan for. So it's a major challenge."

melissa.harris@baltsun.com

Sun reporters Andrea F. Siegel and Laura McCandlish contributed to this article.

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