An Anne Arundel County Circuit judge Friday refused to order the Maryland State Board of Elections to remove the name of disgraced Baltimore legislator Nathaniel T. Oaks from the June 26 Democratic primary election ballot because he technically is still a qualified candidate.
After hearing more than an hour of arguments and testimony, Judge Glenn L. Klavans denied a request to have Oaks’ name taken off the ballot in West Baltimore’s 41st District, citing the fact that while he pleaded guilty to two federal felony counts, he remains a qualified voter.
Other than death, only two factors would disqualify Oaks as a voter, and thus, as a candidate – withdrawing his own state voter registration or entering prison after a court-ordered sentence for a felony conviction. The former state senator is not scheduled to be sentenced until July 17 on the federal charges, three weeks after the June 26 Democratic primary.
“I’m constrained by the singular fact that while it’s virtually certain that Mr. Oaks will be disqualified by the general election, it is legally speculative today,” Klavans said. “And close only counts in horseshoes.”
The judge did preface those remarks by saying that if Oaks were not qualified today, his decision might be different.
“If he was disqualified, I believe the interest of the voters in District 41 … to avoid the potential of being … disenfranchised is quite important,” Klavans said. “Casting a meaningless vote … for a disqualified candidate … would be a mistake.”
Klavans then denied a second motion by the plaintiffs’ attorney, H. Mark Stichel, to order the election board to stop the intricate and involved process of printing the state’s 747 different primary ballots, pending the filing of an appeal and a final decision in the case.
That clears the way for the state board to begin the printing process, a complicated undertaking described in depth Friday by a witness for the state, Natasha D. Walker, project manager of election management for the state board.
State Elections Administrator Linda H. Lamone, Walker’s boss, said after Klavans’s decision that process would begin Monday.
Late Friday, Stichel said his clients – plaintiffs Nancy Lord Lewin, Elinor G. “Ellie” Mitchell and Christopher R. Ervin, three registered voters and political activists from the 41st District – planned to ask Oaks this weekend to immediately remove himself from the voter rolls.
If Oaks does that, Stichel said he would ask for reconsideration by the Anne Arundel County Circuit Court, as Oaks would then formally be a “disqualified” candidate, the distinction Klavans drew Friday in denying the plaintiffs’ motion.
If Oaks does not withdraw his voter registration, Stichel said he would file an appeal of Klavens’ decision with the Maryland Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, on Monday.
Andrea W. Trento, an assistant attorney general for the election board, argued Friday that there is nothing in Maryland law that allows election officials to remove Oaks’ name from the ballot, given the circumstances – and timing – of the ex-lawmaker’s situation.
Unless a judge were to order Oaks’ name removed, it will appear twice on the 41st District ballot – as a candidate for both the Maryland Senate and Baltimore City Democratic State Central Committee – because he was qualified at the time of the state’s Feb. 27 primary election filing deadline and the subsequent withdraw and disqualification dates.
Although Oaks, 71, was under indictment at the filing deadline, he did not plead guilty until more than a month later to two charges of wire fraud and honest services wire fraud stemming from a federal political corruption probe in which he took $15,300 in bribes from an FBI undercover source.
He resigned his Maryland Senate seat March 29, just two hours before pleading guilty in Baltimore before U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett, who will sentence him this summer.
Oaks’ name appears on the 41st District ballot with two other Democrats vying for the Senate seat, Jill P. Carter and J.D. Merrill. It also appears in a second spot with 23 other candidates for the seven-member 41st District Democratic State Central Committee.
Supporters of Carter, in particular, would like to see Oaks’ name removed, fearing that inclusion of his name on the ballot will draw votes away from her and give Merrill an advantage in the primary.
Stichel, however, filed separate affidavits Friday in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court signed by Carter and Merrill, saying that they, as the other state Senate candidates, did not have any objections to having Oaks’ name stricken from the ballot.
A second case filed in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court on behalf of Laura Harpool, another 41st District voter, had sought to remove Oaks’s name from the ballot, as well.
In fact, Jason Downs, the lawyer representing Harpool, filed a motion Wednesday to combine his case with Stichel’s case. That motion, however, had not been acted on by the time Klavans presided over Stichel’s case Friday.
Included with the Harpool case, as filed by Downs, is a one-page affidavit signed by Oaks himself, consenting to having his name removed from the primary election ballot.
Harpool is the daughter of Adrian Harpool, a strategist and spokesman for the Carter campaign.