Officials want to remove Maryland’s top elections administrator. It’s not so easy

This article was republished with permission from WTOP’s news partners at Maryland Matters. Sign up for Maryland Matters’ free email subscription today.

This content was republished with permission from WTOP’s news partners at Maryland Matters. Sign up for Maryland Matters’ free email subscription today.

Maryland’s top elections administrator should retire in the wake of glitches and mishaps surrounding Tuesday’s primary election, Lt. Gov. Boyd K. Rutherford (R) said Wednesday.

Late ballots, errors in results reporting and a slew of other issues have some officials fed up with longtime Maryland Elections Administrator Linda H. Lamone. Rutherford, along with Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D), called for new elections leadership during a Wednesday Board of Public Works meeting.

“I hesitate to ask for anyone’s resignation, but I think it’s time for some retirements and new leadership,” Franchot said. “There’s something going on over there that is just completely unacceptable.”

Franchot said he’d also like to see the Baltimore City elections administrator, Armsted B.C. Jones Sr., gone.

Problems in Maryland’s first vote-by-mail primary began long before Tuesday, when a limited number of polling places opened. Ballots were delivered later than expected in parts of Baltimore City and Montgomery County, and many were deemed “undeliverable” by the United States Postal Service.

Some Baltimore residents even got the wrong ballot, advocates at the elections watchdog group Common Cause Maryland said, and were told they had to vote in-person via a provisional ballot before their incorrect ballot was processed.

And in a Wednesday morning communication, state elections officials said some ballots with a “small proofing error” were erroneously sent out to voters in Baltimore’s City Council District 1. The State Board of Elections blamed its printing vendor, SeaChange, for not correcting a portion of ballots mailed to voters. Officials were reportedly working with the local board of elections to “duplicate affected vote-by-mail ballots onto correct ballots for scanning”.

Officials noticed a problem with the District 1 tally late Tuesday night, as election returns were slowly coming in across the state. At one point, the count in the Democratic primary for City Council showed challenger Paris Bienert with 98% of the vote compared to 2% for Councilman Zeke Cohen.

State elections officials pulled the entire count for the city of Baltimore from the agency website around 2:30 a.m. Wednesday. Results from the city elections began appearing again on the website around midday Wednesday, though there were no mailed-in results from District 1.

Rutherford said it’s time for “change, some new blood, some new thinking,” in asking Lamone to step down.

Getting rid of elections administrators, however, isn’t as simple as asking them to retire. Even if the entire State Board of Elections voted to fire Lamone, the Maryland Senate would have to approve a replacement before she could be removed, per Maryland law.

There’s nothing new about officials wanting to remove Lamone. She has weathered ouster attempts more than once since her tenure as elections administrator began in 1997.

Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) planned to fire her via a carefully-selected State Board of Elections in 2005. The Baltimore Sun later reported, Lamone could have been forced out if four of the five board members voted to oust her.

Instead, the Maryland legislature assured Lamone’s longevity by changing the procedures for firing the state’s elections administrator. The law provided that the elections administrator could continue to serve even after a vote to remove her, until the Maryland Senate approved a replacement.

Ehrlich vetoed the legislation, but the Democrats who controlled the General Assembly overrode the veto.

In a statement, Maryland Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) demanded answers from election officials, but stopped short of calling for Lamone’s retirement or resignation. He acknowledged the unprecedented nature of holding a primary during a global pandemic and unrest, but added that the situation “cannot be an excuse for avoidable problems.”

“We will review in depth what exactly went wrong,” Ferguson said in the statement. “We will improve our election process for the future. And, most importantly, we will hold state and local agencies and officials accountable when we have the facts.”

During a news conference late Wednesday afternoon, Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) also expressed his displeasure with the way the election was handled, calling the troubles “completely unacceptable” and saying the State Board of Elections showed “a serious lack of leadership.”

“The most basic responsibility of the SBE is ensuring that free and fair elections are conducted accurately and there were obviously significant failures,” he said.

Hogan has called for Lamone to conduct a full report to be delivered to himself and the Board of Public Works, the Secretary of State, the General Assembly’s presiding officers and the public. Her deadline is July 3.

Additionally, the governor has asked the General Assembly to begin holding oversight hearings immediately to determine how to correct and prevent similar mishaps from occurring during the general election.

“I want to assure you that we’re going to take whatever actions are necessary to make sure that those who are responsible correct these problems in order to safeguard our democratic process and ensure that our November election is free of these failures and these issues,” he said.

Hogan also said the legislature ought to consider changing the law to make it easier for top state officials to remove the elections administrator.

“If the legislature finds wrongdoing, failures, problems, then I would encourage them to go back and change the law so that the State Board of Elections can decide what to do about the administrator,” he said.

Amy Cruice, director of the ACLU of Maryland’s Election Protection Campaign, also called on the State Board of Elections to move swiftly to study the problems in the primary and work to remedy the situation.

“In a time when the country is facing multiple crises, and when trust in public institutions is at all time lows, and in an environment when misinformation is not only widespread but being intentionally weaponized, our public institutions, and, most importantly, the institutions that manage our elections, have an absolute obligation to quickly and throughly explain not just what they are doing, but why they are doing it,” she said. “We deserve information so that voters and organizations can make recommendations and take action based on true and complete facts about what happened.

Even if the State Board of Elections voted to remove Lamone, and Ferguson intended on authorizing her replacement, the Senate is not schedule to meet again until after the November election.

Maryland State Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp (D) echoed other officials’ worries about election problems ahead of the general election, but was hesitant to call for Lamone’s retirement. She worried that a leadership change could disrupt preparation for November.

Lamone blamed lies from vendors and a lack of time to prepare for the election woes. Studying the primary election’s mishaps, she said, will help her team get ready for November.

“The vendors simply didn’t tell the truth,” Lamone said. “I don’t know how you overcome that.”

“We’re going to do what we always do,” she added. “We’re going to look to see how we can do things better.”

Hannah Gaskill contributed to this report.

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