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Another election, another call for Maryland administrator Linda H. Lamone to resign

Board of Public Works meeting where Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford calls on Linda Lamone to resign as the state’s election director.

If Maryland elections administrator Linda H. Lamone seemed unperturbed by calls to resign in the wake of ballot errors and on-again, off-again reporting of returns from Tuesday’s primary election, it might be because she’s survived worse over the course of her 23-year tenure.

The Democrat, appointed to the post in 1997, beat back attempts to oust her by the administration of the last Republican governor. Since then, she has been protected by legislation that came to be known as the “Linda Lamone for Life” bill that made future attempts to remove her even more difficult.

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But her defenders say it is Lamone’s competence rather than any law that has kept her in office through multiple administrations and massive changes in how we vote. Over the course of her career, Maryland has gone from paper to electronic and back to paper, introduced early voting and now, because of the coronavirus pandemic, shifted to a mostly vote-by-mail system.

“I would want to be in a foxhole with her anytime,” said former state Del. Timothy F. Maloney, a Democrat and an attorney in private practice.

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Maloney represented Lamone in 2004 when the State Board of Elections suspended her and tried to have her removed from office, something he and Democratic officeholders charged was politically motivated.

Linda H. Lamone, a Democrat appointed state elections administrator in 1997, beat back attempts in 2004 to oust her by the administration of Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and since then has been protected by legislation that came to be known as the “Linda Lamone for Life” bill.
Linda H. Lamone, a Democrat appointed state elections administrator in 1997, beat back attempts in 2004 to oust her by the administration of Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and since then has been protected by legislation that came to be known as the “Linda Lamone for Life” bill. (HANDOUT)

The state board voted behind closed doors to remove her for “incompetence, misconduct or other good cause,” although it did not detail specifics of the alleged wrongdoing.

The suspension came after Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. had made clear for months he wanted to replace her. But Democratic leaders, including Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch, rose to Lamone’s defense, calling the move “a blatant abuse of political power.”

Maloney said the move was “out of the Republican playbook focused on installing Republican administrators under this false idea that there was a lot of voter fraud and manipulation going on.”

Lamone successfully won a temporary injunction keeping her in office when a judge ruled that removing her so soon before the November 2004 presidential election would create chaos. A mediator ultimately helped both sides reach an agreement that resolved the dispute and kept Lamone in office.

But she has her detractors who become vocal during election cycles when invariably things will go wrong in either small or big ways, and calls for her head follow.

Baltimore City Council President and Democratic mayoral candidate Brandon Scott speaks outside the Board of Elections on Wednesday, June 3, 2020.

On Wednesday, Lt. Gov. Boyd K. Rutherford, a Republican, said at a Board of Public Works meeting that he thinks it’s time for the 77-year-old Lamone to step down. Comptroller Peter Franchot, a Democratic member of the three-person spending board, was less direct but suggested it was time for “some retirements and new leadership," also including Baltimore’s elections director, Armstead Jones.

The unhappiness with Lamone and Jones came after the state elections website initially reported partial returns from Baltimore’s primary, including closely contested races for mayor and other top posts. But then the returns were mysteriously removed with no explanation.

State officials later posted returns, but only some of those it previously reported. Additionally, they cited a “proofing error” for wildly unbelievable early numbers in the 1st District City Council race.

All this came after problems with getting ballots to voters in time for what had been turned into a largely mail-in election due to the coronavirus pandemic and orders banning large gatherings.

Critics of Lamone say election problems, particularly in Baltimore City, frequently stem from issues in her office.

“Baltimore City always gets a bad rap, but a lot of the problems with the ballots come from the state and the state staff,” said Donna K. Thewes, president of the Howard County Board of Elections.

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Lamone addresses a joint hearing in the House Legislative Services Building in Annapolis in January 2009.
Lamone addresses a joint hearing in the House Legislative Services Building in Annapolis in January 2009. (GLENN FAWCETT / Baltimore Sun)

Thewes said Tuesday’s problems stemmed from problems with the coding and the delivery of ballots, and many voters reported not receiving them in time, prompting them to vote in person. That, along with the number of voters simply more comfortable casting their ballots in person, created long wait times at some sites.

“In reality, the state doesn’t run elections, locals do,” she said. “But the state never solicits our opinion on anything.”

Avi Rubin, a Johns Hopkins professor of computer science who has researched electronic voting, said he thought Lamone did “a bad job” defending the state’s adoption of Diebold electronic voting machines starting with the 2004 elections. Lamone staunchly defended the machines, which cost tens of millions of dollars, but not on what Rubin considered scientific grounds. They were later abandoned.

“It was an electronic machine that spit out results with no paper ballots,” he said. “If the results came into question, there was nothing you could do.”

Rubin, who trained and became an election judge for three elections to better understand the process, notes that he and his wife never received their ballots for Tuesday’s primary.

The couple is temporarily living in an Annapolis home that they usually rent out after losing potential renters because of the coronavirus crisis, and had their mail forwarded from their Pikesville home. But ballots never arrived at either location and they didn’t feel comfortable going to an in-person site with the virus still out there.

“I love voting, and we didn’t get to vote,” Rubin said.

Now he’s hoping the problems get resolved; otherwise, he’ll mask up and go to the polls in November for a presidential contest he considers the most important of his lifetime.

Lamone rarely responds to media requests these days. But Wednesday, she responded generically to Rutherford’s call for her to resign during a call-in to the Board of Public Works meeting.

"As I said before, I’m really proud of the way everybody pitched in and helped and tried to make everything work as best it could,” she said.

Lamone, who earns $137,000 a year, was an assistant Maryland Attorney General before her appointment by Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat. She was well connected in Annapolis, serving as a staff attorney to then Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg in the late 1980s, and then a brief stint as a lobbyist, forming a since splintered firm with power brokers including Alan M. Rifkin and Gerard E. Evans.

Donald F. Norris, a retired professor of public policy at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said Lamone has been protected by legislation enacted by the Democratic-controlled General Assembly in response to the unsuccessful move to oust her in 2004. Ehrlich vetoed the measure, which gave the Senate more control over the bipartisan five-member board appointed by the governor, but legislators overrode it.

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The recent turmoil comes at a time when Norris said President Donald Trump is casting doubt on election results in general and trying to prevent states from going more toward a mail-in system by saying without proof that it leads to voter fraud.

The current anxiety over voting is out of balance to the actual problems experienced across the country, Norris said, although the pandemic complicates the process.

“Until this year … voting went off pretty well throughout the country," he said. “In the last 50 years, you can’t point to more than a few instances of voter fraud."

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