Baltimore vote panel to sue state


An article yesterday about the Baltimore election board incorrectly reported the affiliation of lawyer Matthew L. Iwicki. Mr. Iwicki represented the Republican Club of Maryland -- Baltimore Inc. in an earlier election-related action but was speaking as an individual at the board meeting Friday.

The Sun regrets the errors.

Baltimore election officials found themselves caught between a state election board order to remove the names of 32,000 ineligible voters from city rolls and laws prohibiting such an action.

So, acting on the advice of the Maryland attorney general's office, the city's three-person, bipartisan board yesterday voted unanimously -- in a closed-door session -- to sue the state board to resolve the issue.

Sharon B. Benzil, an assistant attorney general advising the city Board of Supervisors of Elections, said she would file suit as early as next week, probably in Baltimore Circuit Court, in an effort to clarify whether the names can be legally purged from the rolls.

The board, Ms. Benzil said, would ask a judge for a declaratory judgment to resolve the legality of the State Administrative Board of Election Laws' order on March 29 to remove the names. The suit also would ask for advice on what to do with the names of the 32,000 ineligible voters.

"We need a decision," said Linda B. "Lu" Pierson, the sole GOP member of the city election board. "The conflict exists between what the state board has ordered us to do and what the advice of our attorney is, and we want someone to decide that conflict.

"The state board has ordered us to do the purge, and the state's lawyer has said to do so is illegal," Ms. Pierson said. "We voted to let the court order us to do the purge or not do the purge."

Under a state law no longer in effect, those names should have been removed from city voting rolls last year, before the statewide elections, as part of the so-called "five-year purge."

The voters should have been removed because they had not voted in the previous five years, but city officials did not do so, citing the heavy workload of the election year.

The hitch now, however, is that purging names from voter rolls is prohibited by the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 -- the so-called "motor-voter" law -- and companion state law that became effective Jan. 1.

The city election board proposed to state officials that they approve a "voter verification mailing" to determine which voters -- including the 32,000 in question -- no longer reside at the address on their registration records. Any voter who was found to be ineligible because of the verification mailing would then be placed on an inactive list, which is permitted under the new law.

Voters on the inactive list could vote on Election Day -- if they could prove at the polls that they still resided in the district where they were registered and signed an affidavit to that effect. That, too, is permitted under the new law and suggested by the Federal Election Commission as a way to legally limit the number of names on voting rolls.

But the state board failed to approve the request at its April 19 meeting and let its earlier order to remove the names stand.

Efforts to reach members of the state board were unsuccessful last night, but state election administrator Gene M. Raynor said the city board "did the right thing" by voting to let a judge decide the matter.

Daniel J. Earnshaw, a Republican state board member, has led the charge to have the names purged from the city rolls, and was the driving force behind the order to the city board.

Two of Mr. Earnshaw's associates, Matthew L. Iwicki and Louis J. "Guy" Sabatino, argued yesterday to city board members that the names should be taken off the rolls and that they should not be concerned about being sued as a result of the new prohibitions against purging.

As Mr. Sabatino videotaped the proceedings -- now a standard rTC practice for the Republicans -- Mr. Iwicki told the board that placing the names on the inactive list would raise a question about equal protection under the U.S. Constitution.

Mr. Iwicki, a lawyer with Venable, Baetjer and Howard representing the Republican group, said that voters in the state's 23 other jurisdictions were purged automatically from the rolls last year with no way to vote, if they showed up at the polls.

Baltimore voters could sign an affidavit and vote, under the city board's remedy, while purged voters in other jurisdictions would have to reregister to vote, he pointed out.

"Be brave, do what's right," Mr. Iwicki urged the board.

Mr. Earnshaw persuaded the state board to ask State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli to bring charges against Barbara E. Jackson, the city election administrator, for not conducting the five-year purge, as required by the law in effect last year.

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