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Politics

Baltimore transit equity group fails to persuade judge to reverse city elections board decision on ballot petition

A Baltimore Circuit Court judge has upheld a decision by the Baltimore City Board of Elections to block a question about transit from appearing on city ballots this fall.

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Judge Lawrence Fletcher-Hill ruled Wednesday that the Baltimore Transit Equity Coalition failed to make its case for overturning the election board’s decision to dismiss its petition, which would have asked voters to create a fund to advocate for a regional transit authority. The group submitted 14,145 signatures in favor of the proposed ballot question — more than the 10,000 required by law — but city election officials deemed more than 4,400 invalid.

Fletcher-Hill said the coalition, represented in a hearing Wednesday by Samuel Jordan, the group’s president, failed to submit enough evidence to show the election board’s decision should be reversed.

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Jordan held up the signature of a noteworthy Baltimorean, former Democratic Mayor Sheila Dixon, as evidence the election board erred in dismissing the petition. A signature from Dixon, mayor from 2007 to 2010 and a registered voter of the city, was dismissed by elections officials and marked “DI” for date issue. Jordan said he believed the signature was cast aside because Dixon did not include her birth date, a category that is optional for petition signers.

Thomas Chapman, an attorney for the city election board, said Dixon’s petition was actually dismissed because her middle initial was not included. Dixon’s name on voter registration logs includes her middle initial, and the law requires the petition to match, Chapman argued.

The proposed Red Line, which Gov. Larry Hogan canceled in 2015.

Even if Dixon’s signature was incorrectly excluded, Jordan did not provide evidence of other signatures that were incorrectly disqualified, Fletcher-Hill noted during the hearing.

Jordan said his group was crunched for time because the election board did not provide documents detailing the reasons for each rejected signature until Aug. 24.

“You’ve now had from the 24th until today, really yesterday, to file any factual showing, any evidentiary showing how 322 or more of these signatures are in fact valid, and all I have is an argument about one,” Fletcher-Hill said.

Jordan said he expected a later hearing to be held where evidence would be submitted.

“We still have not gotten judicial review,” Jordan said.

“This is the hearing. This is your judicial review,” Fletcher-Hill said.

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“We dispute and will continue to dispute, if that’s your ruling,” Jordan said. “There are immense inequities at play here that were put in place by the defendant.”

In his ruling, Fletcher-Hill said Jordan’s misunderstanding of the procedure was “unfortunate.”

“The court does not have the luxury of time in an election dispute where the ballot must be finalized in the time-sensitive process leading to early voting and Election Day,” he said.

Fletcher-Hill’s ruling noted one significant misgiving about his decision. During the hearing, Jordan submitted a signature sheet containing Dixon’s signature. Four of the five signatures it contained were disqualified and marked “date issue.” Only one, a signer who provided a birth date, was not.

“It is striking,” the judge wrote. “The court notes from the Board’s proper submissions that a total of 158 signatures were invalidated based on the ‘DI’ code, although the court has no way of knowing if any other pages show a similar pattern.”

Jordan said Thursday he is planning to file a motion for reconsideration that will include the complete list of signatures his organization is challenging.

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The coalition was formed to advocate for the completion of the Red Line light rail that was canceled in 2015 by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan. It had hoped to ask voters whether they wanted to establish a fund promoting “enabling legislation” to create a Baltimore Regional Transportation Authority.

A deadline to begin printing ballots for voters across the state loomed over Wednesday’s hearing. The Maryland State Board of Elections voted Tuesday to extend deadlines to certify and display ballots by two days — until Thursday — to accommodate the legal challenge playing out in Baltimore, as well as another in Montgomery County.

The elections board posted the proposed ballots online Thursday for voters to review. Ballot printing is slated to begin as early as Friday.


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