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Government & Politics

In Montgomery County, an administrative ritual turns into a full-blown celebration of democracy

The members of the Montgomery County Board of Elections, including one of two alternates, are sworn in Monday. Photo by Josh Kurtz.

Monday was the first date for newly constituted local boards of elections in Maryland to hold their inaugural meetings.

Only in Montgomery County did the occasion merit a celebratory swearing-in ceremony, at the Germantown campus of Montgomery College and live-streamed to the world, with flowers, a reception, a packed house, and almost two hours of soaring speeches from politicians about the sanctity of democracy.

And only, perhaps, in Montgomery County would the transfer of power from an elections board with a Republican majority to a board with a Democratic majority for the first time in eight years feature a keynote address from a Republican.

But then, former U.S. Rep. Connie Morella is no average Republican. At age 92, she defies time and party labels and oratorical conventions. And though she surely would be considered several shades of RINO by most modern-day Republicans, she gave the Democrats who dominate the politics of Maryland’s largest jurisdiction one extra opportunity to offer paeans to the oft-forgotten pleasures of bipartisanship. Not only that, the Connie Morella Library in downtown Bethesda serves as a polling place most election years.

“Your work is more critical now than ever. I think you sense that,” Morella told the elections board members.

By law, the Maryland State Board of Elections and all 24 local elections boards have majorities based on the occupant of the governor’s office. So for the past eight years, with former Gov. Larry Hogan (R) in Annapolis, they’ve all had one-vote GOP majorities. But now that Democrat Wes Moore resides in Government House, the local boards this month are switching to one-vote Democratic majorities. The state board transitions to its 3-2 Democratic majority on July 1.

These majorities at times can matter a lot — though less so in a place like Montgomery County, where a Republican hasn’t won an election since 2002. At the ceremony Monday, there were almost no hints of partisanship, as Republicans nominated Democrats for top board positions and vice-versa, and unanimous votes followed. The majority-Democratic board also rehired the same board attorney who has held the job for two decades; he was first hired during a Republican administration.

Democratic elected officials and members of the Democratic central committee sat side-by-side with leaders of the Republican central committee. Everybody talked about the importance of laying aside partisan differences.

“Our board requires Democrats and Republicans to work together to achieve common goals,” said David Naimon, a Democrat, who took over as board chair. “I consider all of you to be my friends. I’m known for occasionally disagreeing with my friends.”

Naimon said any battles on the election board will be about policy and procedure. “I urge everyone not to confuse passions for partisanship,” he said.

Naimon said he wanted to hold a swearing-in ceremony — in the same large meeting room at Montgomery College where the board often holds its post-election canvasses — because he wanted to celebrate democracy, the diversity of the board members and the county they are serving, and the hard-working elections staff, who in recent years have endured two recounts in county election primaries, a pandemic, and a redistricting fight that delayed the 2022 primaries and associated administrative activities.

County Executive Marc Elrich (D), who won each of his primaries by just dozens of votes, necessitating the elaborate recounts of 2018 and 2022, said he hoped the long hours had some ancillary benefit for elections workers.

“I hope I contributed to overtime pay,” he joked. “And I did it twice in four years.” He added that even though recounts can become contentious, “nobody questioned the integrity of what was being done.”

Elrich also applauded the idea of celebrating the work of the elections board staff, when so many elections workers around the country are under attack. “You need to hear that,” he said. “The work you are doing around the country is not always appreciated.”

Former U.S. Rep. Connie Morella (R-Md.) was the keynote speaker at the swearing-in ceremony for the Montgomery County Board of Elections Monday. Photo by Josh Kurtz.

In her speech, Morella — who continues to be active on the civic front, including serving on the bipartisan National Council on Election Integrity — name-checked or quoted Mae West; Shakespeare; John Lewis, the late civil rights icon and her former colleague; and Jacob Javits, the late U.S. senator from New York who was, like Morella, an old-school liberal. She also made note of all the speeches.

“You’ve been such a patient and wonderful group,” she told the audience. “Why? Because you care about what happens. You care about the integrity of our elections.”

And, Morella said, the elections board members should consider the 200 or so people in the audience reinforcements and supporters.

“We are here — your friends and supporters, to support you and all that you are doing to make Montgomery County and the United States of America so great,” she said.


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In Montgomery County, an administrative ritual turns into a full-blown celebration of democracy