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Activists file federal lawsuit to challenge Baltimore primary

and Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
Activists ask a federal judge to order a new primary election in Baltimore.

A group of activists is asking a federal court to order a new primary for Baltimore voters, alleging that a series of irregularities and a "vote-buying scheme" marred the election's outcome.

Members of Voters Organized for the Integrity of City Elections, or VOICE, joined two candidates and an ex-offender as plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court moments before midnight Wednesday against the city and state elections boards.

They are asking the court to declare the results of the primary "null and void," order a new vote at the earliest date possible and appoint federal observers to oversee the election and "systemic changes in practices, procedures and personnel."

The filing also alleges that the administration of the election disenfranchised African-Americans, who make up the majority of Baltimore's population.

No hearing date has been set.

J. Wyndal Gordon, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, said voters deserve a chance to have a judge consider the problems uncovered during a state investigation and decide on the proper recourse.

"What we are seeking, ultimately, is a redo," Gordon said. "We want a do-over."

State Sen. Catherine E. Pugh was declared the Democratic nominee for mayor after the April 26 primary. Former Mayor Sheila Dixon, who finished second, announced Wednesday that she would not file a lawsuit challenging the outcome.

Dara Lindenbaum, an attorney for Pugh, said it is "time to move on to the general election." She noted that the state's review found that Pugh won by about 2,400 votes.

"The issues raised in the complaint, even if taken as true, could not have changed the outcome of the mayoral primary," Lindenbaum said in a statement.

The review by the Maryland State Board of Elections concluded that about 1,700 ballots cast in Baltimore's primary election were handled improperly.

About 1,200 provisional ballots were scanned into the vote tally on Election Day without judges having verified that the voters were eligible, and more than 500 additional provisional ballots were not initially considered, officials found.

Legal and political experts said courts rarely order new elections, and they questioned the logistics of a new primary: Should a judge consider a new election for just the mayoral and City Council races, or a redo for all of the contests, including the presidential and congressional matchups?

"It's up to the court at this stage," said Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College. "We're talking about a very expensive election that many people have moved on from."

Officials estimated that the April primary cost $3 million to $4 million and drew more than 140,000 voters, including about 130,000 Democrats.

Armstead B.C. Jones Sr., director of the Baltimore City Board of Elections, defended the city's administration of the primary, saying the lawsuit was so packed with allegations that the plaintiffs "are throwing in the kitchen sink and everything else they could."

Jones is one of two defendants named in the case. The other, state elections administrator Linda A. Lamone, did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.

Jones said he was focused on the November vote and dismissed a section of the lawsuit that called for elections personnel to be replaced.

"These people can holler and scream. I did what I was supposed to do," Jones said. "I don't plan to go anywhere."

Jones said the biggest issues on Election Day were that 365 election judges failed to show up for work, and judges and voters were unfamiliar with paper balloting, new this year. Touch screens were used in past elections.

City elections have been controversial in the past.

A partial repeat election was ordered nearly 50 years ago in eight Baltimore precincts when a congressional candidate's name was left off the ballot. Republican voters in part of Roland Park returned to the polls about a month after the primary in 1970. The same winner was declared after both contests.

Other problems that year included polling places failing to open on time and election workers who were unfamiliar with procedures.

Police were ordered to supervise the city's general election that year.

Steven F. Huefner, a law professor at Ohio State University, said courts have been "very reluctant to order new elections absent clear evidence." He said he knew of only a handful of repeat elections ordered across the country in recent decades.

The plaintiffs must prove that the number of votes in question is greater than the margin of victory in the various contests, Huefner said. Short of that, he said, they would have to convince the court that one of the candidates was personally involved in wrongdoing that affected an outcome.

The lawsuit characterizes the April election as an "absolute disaster" that included a "staggering number of irregularities." The 24-page complaint outlines allegations that voting was suppressed by polling places that opened late and includes a letter that city elections officials said they mistakenly sent to 34 ex-offenders, saying that they might not be able to vote because of their felony convictions.

The plaintiffs allege that one campaign ran a "vote-buying scheme" aimed at minority voters.

Pugh was criticized for busing prospective campaign workers to the polls during early voting and offering them food. State law prohibits the use of "force, threat, menace, intimidation, bribery, reward or offer of reward" to influence voters.

The lawsuit also alleges that the problems in the election had a disproportionate impact on African-Americans, because city voters had "a higher probability of their votes not being counted."

Steve Raabe, president of OpinionWorks, estimated that 60 percent of Baltimore primary voters are black. Raabe conducted polling for The Baltimore Sun and the University of Baltimore before the election.

Two candidates who lost in the primary signed on to the suit: Charlie Metz, a Democrat who ran for City Council, and William T. Newton, a Republican running in the 7th Congressional District.

Metz lost the party's nomination for the South Baltimore District 10 council seat by 130 votes. Newton lost the Republican nomination for the House seat by 45 votes.

"I believe the least the city can do is ensure we have fair, honest elections," Metz said.

Dwayne Benbow, the former offender who is a plaintiff, received one of the board's erroneous letters. He said election judges questioned his right to vote for more than 40 minutes on Election Day.

Benbow, although subject to an "intimidating and humiliating" experience, cast a provisional ballot.

Kromer said complaints about the election seem to come from a "vocal minority" of city voters. Some of the activists involved have ties to Dixon's campaign, including Hassan Giordano, who volunteered for the former mayor's campaign. Giordano is the lead plaintiff in the case.

"You have to wonder where the across-the-city outrage is," Kromer said. "You really don't see it. I would suspect there would be more people very outraged if there was clear, definitive proof."

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