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Md. no longer writing off its write-in votes


Unhappy with politics as usual, some creative Marylanders expressed their disgust during last November's election by writing in the names of candidates they apparently felt could not do worse.

For offices high and low, they voted for Larry the Cable Guy; Biggie Smalls; Judge Wapner; the abortion clinic bombing suspect, Eric Rudolph; home run hitter Albert Belle; and Daffy Duck.

For better or worse, protests of the unofficial write-in variety have been written off -- unreported by election officials. The votes garnered by a write-in candidate certified by the state are reported, but until recently, other write-in votes were known only to the voter.

No longer.

As the result of a Baltimore voter's complaint to the American Civil Liberties Union, state election board officials can now provide a deeper look into a realm of voter unhappiness. Every Maryland jurisdiction was required last year to count and tabulate write-ins of all kinds so that each protest, however serious or silly, is part of the record.

At least one of the write-in voters believes more reporting could be revolutionary, leading to a more accurate measure of voter discontent and to a more accountable system in which candidates would listen more carefully to the ideas expressed.

Even if the protest candidate gets one vote and has no better prospects than Stone Cold (who got a vote for sheriff of Baltimore), the vote has meaning, according to this theory.

"No vote is a wasted vote," said Catherine M. Brennan, a Baltimore lawyer. "Your vote is wasted if you vote for someone you know is not going to do what you want. Enough people in Minnesota were so sick and tired that they voted in Jesse 'The Body' Ventura. I thought that was fantastic. There were enough 'wasted' votes there to get a governor who doesn't have the same agenda."

The knowledge that a write-in protest would be unheard in Maryland led Brennan to press for enforcement of the write-in reporting requirement in the state's election law. In November, the State Administrative Board of Election Laws agreed that write-ins must be reported and ordered local boards to send the names of the vote-getters to the state last year by Dec. 15. More time has been granted in cases where difficulties were encountered.

Brennan's quest for write-in reporting in Maryland began after the 1996 presidential election, when she learned that her vote for the World Workers Party ticket would be unrecorded. In Maryland last year, she voted for her friend Kim Propeack for governor, a lawyer whose ideas on economic justice she admires.

Rejecting major parties

Early returns from last year's write-ins provide no definitive trend or focus. The numbers are a minuscule fraction of the 1.4 million or so votes cast in the state, but they do show that some voters turned away from Republican and Democratic candidates. That kind of rejection was recorded in every contested race from governor to Orphans Court (where one protester suggested Orphan Annie).

Some selected real people of no star quality. Others selected or invented nonsense candidates, M. Mouse, Snoopy and Woodstock, and Deputy Dawg among them.

"None of the above" had several first cousins, including "Someone Else," "Anyone," "Any Fool," "What Ever," "Not Him" and "Abstain" (possibly a contradiction in terms.)

The leading real-world write-in voter-getter appears to have been Lisa M. Mitchell, a talk show celebrity and granddaughter of civil rights leader Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Given the difficulty of mounting a successful write-in campaign, her showing was impressive, but it was still futile.

Mitchell ran fourth in the race for one of three seats in the House of Delegates representing Baltimore's 44th District. Verna Jones led with 10,119 votes, followed by longtime officeholder Ruth M. Kirk with 8,585 votes and newcomer Jeffrey A. Paige with 7,171. Mitchell, despite her name recognition, received 1,105 votes, according to the report.

Most get one vote

Virtually no other choice got more than 10 votes, and most got one. They included Joe Honest, Joe Schmo, Stephen L. Miles, Mr. Potato Head and the Night Fly.

As foolish as some of these choices are, they could make an important point, said Dwight Sullivan, an ACLU lawyer who worked on the issue after Brennan expressed her concern.

"If someone is saying 'none of the above,' " Sullivan said, "they are expressing dissatisfaction with everyone on the ballot." That has meaning only if others can see it, he said. Without enforcement of the reporting law, there is no way to gauge the depth of concern and to embolden others to express their concerns, Sullivan said.

Donald F. Norris, a professor of policy studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, is among those who say the drop in voter participation indicates that many Americans have lost faith in the government. Nonvoters often say they believe their votes don't count because the politicians don't listen to them.

Brennan and Sullivan are suggesting that a properly enforced reporting requirement would encourage those who still vote to keep the faith.

Of 24 local election boards, 16 have filed their reports. Still to be completed is the one from Montgomery County, which is one of Maryland's most progressive political jurisdictions but has an aging computer system, said Richard G. Goehler, the county's deputy elections commissioner.

The sorting machinery must go through votes in 227 precincts, but it has been broken, forcing Goehler to conduct a nationwide search for the spare parts needed to fix it. That accomplished, he said, he will put his crews to work finishing the report next week.

Goehler said he knows there are votes for the likes of Bart Simpson and M. Lewinsky in nearly every race, and he did not question the value of recording them.

"It's a big effort," he said. "But I don't make the laws. I just follow them."

Despite the concerns of Brennan and Sullivan, this could be the last year such a report is required. The state law making the report mandatory was amended last year, said Sullivan, and the reporting requirement was inadvertently eliminated.

Brennan said she will be disappointed if the write-in as a form of protest goes back into the shadows.

"There's all this talk about voter malaise and lack of participation," she said, referring to low turnout in many elections. "Part of that may be because we're offered choices that are not palatable.

"So a message on that score is important. And, finally, it's our vote. It's one of the few rights we have that can actually make a difference in our system."

Pub Date: 1/02/99

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