Former state Sen. Nathaniel Oaks has a long history of putting his interests ahead of those he was supposed to serve, dating to the legal troubles that ended his first stint in the House of Delegates nearly 25 years ago and culminating in the bribery scandal that led to his ultimate downfall. Immediately after his indictment last year, he showed up again on the floor of the state Senate, showering it in shame. This year, as his attorneys prepared for trial, he refused calls to resign, even after Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller stripped him of his committee assignment. It was only on the eve of his guilty plea in March that he finally resigned, leaving his constituents without representation at all as the legislature worked through a crush of issues of vital importance to the district — ranging from anti-gun violence bills to a heated vote on how school construction dollars are allocated. And throughout it all, he continued to run for re-election.
But this month, Mr. Oaks joined in a legal effort to get his name removed from the ballot, and this month he went so far as to give up his voter registration so that he would be ineligible to run immediately, rather than wait until after his sentencing — and the June 28th primary — this summer. An Anne Arundel circuit judge agreed that Mr. Oaks’ removal from the voter rolls had forced the issue and ordered the state to take his name off the ballot.
We don’t know what led to this sudden burst of conscience — is he hoping to get a lighter sentence? Is he hoping his removal from the ballot would improve the odds of one of the other candidates on the ballot (former Del. Jill P. Carter and former teacher J.D. Merrill)? Or is this like The Grinch who Stole the 41st District — did Mr. Oaks’ heart grow three sizes that day?
Whatever the reason, Mr. Oaks is, finally, trying to do the right thing. And the state is fighting tooth and nail to stop him.
The attorney general’s office, on behalf of the State Board of Elections, has appealed to the state’s highest court to make sure that the voters of the 41st have the chance to vote for a criminal who betrayed their trust because to do otherwise would be a bother.
Granted, printing up the 747 different styles of ballots used in the primary is a complicated endeavor, and changing the list of Senate candidates in the 41st District after printing began last week would doubtless involve additional expense. But the state's argument that elections officials would be more harmed by that inconvenience than the voters of the 41st District would be by leaving Mr. Oaks’ name on the ballot is ridiculous.
It’s altogether possible that Mr. Oaks, without campaigning, could still win by virtue of name recognition. If he then became ineligible to hold office, he would potentially be replaced not via a special election but through a selection by the district’s Democratic Central Committee — a process that’s undemocratic at best and wildly dysfunctional at worst. At the very least, his presence on the ballot could siphon votes from one of the other two candidates in what could be a close race.
Ms. Carter has a long history of representing the district, and Mr. Merrill, though a political newcomer, has some valuable connections — he is Martin O’Malley’s son-in-law — and is running a highly visible campaign. Witness what happened in the 2016 mayoral race — then-city councilman Nick Mosby dropped out and endorsed then-Sen. Catherine Pugh, but his name stayed on the ballot, and he got 1,992 votes anyway, which is nearly as many votes as separated now-Mayor Pugh from her nearest rival, former Mayor Sheila Dixon.
In the future, the state needs to establish a better process for handling cases like this. The last chance for withdrawing a name from the ballot is an absurd two days after the filing deadline and more than four months before the primary. We need a system that recognizes legitimate changes of circumstance like this one.
But for right now, the state should just stop fighting. If it is in a bind now with respect to reprinting ballots, it’s a problem of its own making. Had it not fought previous attempts by Mr. Oaks and his constituents to remove his name, the state could have resolved the matter before it started printing ballots. The longer it delays now, the worse the situation will be. And for what? The principle the state is fighting for is convenience. The principle Mr. Oaks and the other litigants are fighting for is representative democracy. There is no comparison.
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