Rejecting a lower court order, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled Friday that the state elections board for now can continue its process for printing primary election ballots with the name of ex-lawmaker Nathaniel T. Oaks on them as a candidate, at least until a Wednesday hearing.
In a two-page order, Court of Appeals Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera granted a motion by the Attorney General’s Office, which represents the state elections board, to immediately stay a preliminary injunction issued Thursday by a circuit judge to remove Oaks’ name from the ballots.
Without comment, Barbera also shortened the time for attorneys on both sides to file briefs in the case and had the time-sensitive matter transferred to the docket of the state’s highest court for oral arguments on Wednesday.
Overruling Anne Arundel Circuit Judge Glenn L. Klavans’ order to remove Oaks’ name from the ballots allows the Maryland State Board of Elections to continue the complicated process of testing and printing 747 different configurations of the June 26 primary ballot – including two with Oaks’ name in Baltimore’s 41st District – to be used statewide.
It remains unclear how far along state elections officials will be in the printing process by the time of arguments May 2 before the Court of Appeals. They are under very tight time constraints, as under state law, the deadline for printing ballots is May 7, 2018, and the federally mandated deadline for mailing absentee ballots to overseas and military voters is May 12, 2018.
Klavans ruled Thursday that since Oaks voluntarily removed his name from the Maryland voter rolls on Monday – and therefore was no longer a qualified candidate — the elections board had to remove the disgraced legislator’s name from the ballot.
The judge initially had ruled last Friday that Oaks’ name had to remain on the ballot because he technically was still a qualified candidate, despite awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty March 29 to two federal felonies.
Klavans reversed that decision Thursday after lawyers for three District 41 voters seeking removal of Oaks’ name asked Monday that he reconsider the matter when the ex-lawmaker withdrew his name from the voting rolls.
Unless a judge orders 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 state officials say he was qualified at the time of a 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.
Two hours before the plea, in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, Oaks resigned his Maryland Senate seat. The West Baltimore Democrat is scheduled to be sentenced by U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett on July 17, three weeks after the primary.
State officials have maintained there is nothing in Maryland law that allows election officials to remove Oaks’ name from the ballot, given the circumstances – and timing – of his situation.
His name now 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.
Attorneys H. Mark Stichel and Elizabeth A. Harlan filed suit April 9 for the three voters seeking to have Oaks’s name removed from the ballot in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court. The plaintiffs, political activists from the 41st District, are Nancy Lord Lewin, Elinor G. “Ellie” Mitchell and Christopher R. Ervin.
In his reconsideration ruling, Klavans wrote that he believed “plaintiffs will prevail on the merits of the case,” after raising questions about whether the elections board would be violating Maryland law and the Maryland Constitution by allowing Oaks’ name to appear.
“The harm to the voters by way of potential confusion, inadvertence, and/or mischief by the appearance of a disqualified name on the ballot far outweighs any inconvenience to the Board of Elections,” Klavans wrote Thursday. “No less comprehensive remedy, such as the posting of signs at polling places, can assure that the voters’ rights to effectively exercise their franchise will be protected.”
Nevertheless, time remains a critical factor.
A Maryland election official testified last Friday before Klavans that while removing the name is still possible, though not easy, the risk of a mistake in the state’s voting systems would be greatly increased by changing the ballot at this point in the process.
Natasha D. Walker, project manager of election management for the state board, explained to the court in great detail the involved process for printing hundreds of versions of the primary ballot for use at different congressional, legislative and local districts statewide on election day.
In his decision, however, Klavans said he believed there was still time to deal with the 41st District ballots.
“For the reasons expressed by the court at the original adversary hearing in this matter, the court finds that the Board of Elections still has adequate time to reform the ballots in Baltimore City,” Klavans wrote.