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Harford County man sues election board, sheriff following arrest for not wearing mask to vote

A Fallston man has sued the Harford County Board of Elections and county Sheriff Jeffery Gahler following his arrest this week as he attempted to vote without a face mask. Daniel Swain 52, is shown in a handout photo from the sheriff's office.
A Fallston man has sued the Harford County Board of Elections and county Sheriff Jeffery Gahler following his arrest this week as he attempted to vote without a face mask. Daniel Swain 52, is shown in a handout photo from the sheriff's office. (handout / HANDOUT)

A Fallston man sued the Harford County Board of Elections and Sheriff Jeffery Gahler, arguing he was disenfranchised when he was arrested Monday after attempting to vote without a mask.

Daniel Swain and his son, Luke Swain, are seeking a temporary restraining order against the elections board; its acting director, Kimberley Slusar; Gahler and the Jarrettsville Volunteer Fire Company, which hosted the voting center where deputies arrested Swain.

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“A statewide injunction forbidding any election official or law enforcement from interfering with any voter’s right to vote by forcing them to cover their faces with a covering or mask of some sort must be immediately issued,” the lawsuit says.

Swain, 52, and his 22-year-old son refused several times to wear masks, according to charging documents. They were offered the option of voting at an outdoor booth, according to police and election officials. Swain told deputies that request was “unconstitutional” and said Maryland law allows people to vote unmasked inside, the documents stated.

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Maryland remains under an executive order from Republican Gov. Larry Hogan requiring anyone over the age of 5 to wear face coverings while inside public spaces.

According to the lawsuit, sheriff’s deputies told the Swains they would be escorted from the building. Swain asked if they could receive ballots and vote before leaving. He was refused, the lawsuit states. He and his son were asked to leave, but only his son complied and the elder Swain was arrested.

“When it was clear there were no other options, Mr. Swain was placed under arrest for the trespassing violation and the office of the Harford County state’s attorney was contacted and advised to charge Mr. Swain for a violation of the governor’s orders, in addition to the trespassing charge,” the sheriff’s office said Tuesday in a Facebook post.

After being taken to the county detention center, Swain wore a mask under “duress," knowing he would not be released unless he did so, the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit argues Swain and his son were intimidated and denied their right to vote, stating a deadline to request a Maryland ballot by mail has passed. While the deadline to request a ballot delivered by mail was Oct. 20, people still can pick up one at a local election board office or get a link via email to a printable ballot.

Slusar could not be reached Wednesday for comment on the lawsuit. She said Monday that Swain had not voted yet, and noted he was “given ample opportunity” to do so. Swain is not barred from county voting centers, authorities said.

Cristie Hopkins, spokeswoman for the sheriff’s office, declined to comment Wednesday. A representative from the Jarrettsville Volunteer Fire Company could not be reached for comment.

Swain is represented in the lawsuit by attorney and Republican Del. Daniel Cox, who earlier this year joined other legislators in suing Hogan in federal court over his orders banning large gatherings and closing most businesses. The court rejected a temporary restraining order sought by the plaintiffs, but the lawsuit remains active.

Asked Tuesday about the arrest, Hogan said it was important that elections boards try to protect people from the virus.

“We’re very concerned about the spread, so I’m sure that was a decision that the local board of elections and the local law enforcement made,” Hogan said. He said people who don’t follow public health guidance, including wearing masks, “are endangering themselves and their family members and their neighbors.”

Cox, who represents parts of Carroll and Frederick counties in the House of Delegates, filed Swain’s lawsuit on Tuesday in Harford County Circuit Court. A hearing is scheduled for Friday.

The lawsuit also seeks “Constitutional voting rights training” for the elections board and the sheriff’s office, as well as damages.

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Cox could not be reached Wednesday for comment. He tweeted Monday about Swain’s arrest, saying: “I anticipate vigorous questioning in the Maryland House of this petty and unconstitutional action of Harford County Sheriff Ghaler @Harford_Sheriff. He should read better. Total mask exemptions allowed in the executive orders!”

State election officials said that voters must wear masks inside voting centers to help reduce the spread of the coronavirus, unless they have a disability or medical reason for not doing so. Voters without a medical excuse who refuse a mask offered to them must vote at a segregated voting booth. That booth may be outside or in a different area of the voting center.

Swain declined to comment to a reporter Wednesday at his house, referring questions to his attorney.

Across the country, regulations on masks while voting vary and have been a source of contention.

On Wednesday, a U.S. District Court judge ruled Texas voters are required to wear masks while casting ballots during the pandemic, invalidating an exemption that state’s governor had made for polling places. A lawsuit filed by conservative activists in Minnesota challenging their state’s mask requirement at the polls was struck down by a federal judge earlier this month.

Baltimore Sun Media Group reporters David Anderson and James Whitlow contributed to this article.

This news was included in our weekday morning audio briefing on Oct. 29. Here’s how to listen.

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