By Adam Pagnucco.
Imagine a senior state employee appointed by the governor to a politically sensitive position. Now imagine the following hypothetical situation: the employee commits a heinous crime covered by every TV station in the state. Imagine this employee is then convicted and imprisoned. One would think that such an employee – any state employee, really – would be terminated from employment by the state in such a hypothetical circumstance.
You would be right – EXCEPT for one key position in state government: the State Administrator of Elections. Under current state law, that position would continue to be occupied by its current holder for a potentially indefinite period.
That law is commonly known as the “Linda Lamone for Life” law.
It must be repealed.
To understand how this law came to be, let’s go back in time. Linda Lamone, who is the State Administrator of Elections today, was appointed by Governor Parris Glendening to the position in 1997 but Republican Bob Ehrlich was elected governor in 2002. By 2005, Ehrlich had decided to get rid of her. But Lamone had an ace-in-the-hole – Mike Miller, who was then in his prime as Senate President and was determined to protect her. To thwart Ehrlich, Miller pushed through Senate Bill 444 to protect Lamone’s job. Ehrlich vetoed it but General Assembly Democrats overrode the veto, thereby winning one of Maryland’s uglier partisan battles of the last couple decades.
The bill’s fiscal note concisely states its purpose.
The State board may remove the State Administrator provided that the board is fully constituted with five duly confirmed members. Removal requires the affirmative vote of four duly confirmed members. The State Administrator is authorized to continue to serve subsequent to a valid vote of removal until a successor is confirmed by the Senate of Maryland.
And so it did not matter if Ehrlich’s appointees to the State Board of Elections (SBE) voted to remove Lamone. It did not matter if they got a super-majority for removal. Lamone would continue to serve regardless until the Senate voted for a successor. That meant Lamone was accountable to just one person – the person who scheduled Senate business. You guessed it – that person was Mike Miller.
At the time, the Gazette put it this way.
The bill is so restrictive that the elections administrator could not be removed from office even if all five members of the State Board of Elections vote to fire her, even if she were convicted of first-degree murder, sentenced to death row and stripped of her voting rights. Only when the state Senate approves a replacement could she be removed. Now that’s job security.
Lamone has been a controversial administrator over the years. Her tenure has seen problems with campaign finance reporting software, a 2010 state audit finding “seriously deficient” financial practices (some of which had been previously found in 2006), a 2016 election in Baltimore City in which 800 votes were improperly counted, a 2017 state audit alleging that SBE had put 600,000 social security numbers at risk of hacking and the 2018 revelation from the FBI that an SBE vendor hosting election data was owned by a Russian oligarch with ties to Vladimir Putin. In 2018, a fed-up former member of the Montgomery County Board of Elections penned a Washington Post op-ed titled “Maryland Can’t Protect its Elections.“
Last year, Governor Larry Hogan and Comptroller Peter Franchot complained to Lamone about long lines in the previous general election. Franchot said, “This was a black eye for Maryland around the country.” Hogan added, “They were making fun of us on the national television about how bad the Maryland election was being administered… You are the Maryland state election administrator.” Lamone blamed the local election boards, responding, “I have no control.”
In December 2019, a General Assembly audit of SBE stated the following:
Our audit disclosed that improvements were needed to SBE’s existing processes and controls to ensure the integrity of the Statewide voter registration records. Specifically, SBE did not perform periodic documented reviews of the voter registration system to ensure that access capabilities were properly restricted. Furthermore, SBE’s oversight processes were not adequate to ensure that local boards of election appropriately corrected voter registration data based on the results of internal reviews of voter registration activity and the reports of possible ineligible voters that it received from external sources.
In addition, SBE systems, including the online voter registration website and the electronic pollbook system used for voter check-in, were at risk since controls were inadequate to ensure that only properly authorized program changes were placed into production for these systems.
Perhaps most noteworthy was Lamone’s allegiance to flawed vote counting machines manufactured by Diebold Election Systems, which went on for years despite clear evidence of problems. Among other issues, the machines were shown to be vulnerable to hacking, the company employed at least five felons in management roles and the company’s CEO once promised to “deliver” Ohio to George W. Bush. The machines had no paper trail and Lamone vowed that they would have one “over my dead body.” In a particularly bizarre 2006 incident, three SBE computer disks with voting machine source codes were left outside the office of former Delegate (and current State Senator) Cheryl Kagan, a longtime Lamone critic. Kagan said, “How many copies of this software are there? If they sent it to me, is it possible that there are a dozen other copies out there?… My understanding is that, with this software, a person of ill intent could disable a machine or skew an election.” The state wound up suing Diebold in 2008 and the machines were scrapped.
Lamone concedes nothing to her critics. Why should she? They are powerless to hold her accountable. None of their jobs are protected by state law! Here is video of Lamone arguing with press over the doomed Diebold machines, eventually walking out of an interview.
Not all election problems are Lamone’s fault. The state and county boards of elections work together to hold elections in every cycle. Some mistakes are made by county boards. There are also occasional problems with vendors that even well-run boards have to confront.
But there is a national context to SBE’s recent problems that is inescapable. Because of the COVID-19 crisis, many states around the country – probably including Maryland – will be using mostly vote-by-mail elections in November. President Donald Trump and the Republican Party, fearing massive turnout from hostile voters, are doing everything possible to discredit vote-by-mail elections. The huge number of issues in Maryland’s primary with late ballots, ballots not received, ballots sent to departed voters and of course Baltimore’s Council District 1 race will be exploited by Republicans – and maybe even hostile foreign powers – to erode faith in the voting process. That’s why it’s absolutely crucial to hold top election officials accountable when things go wrong.
And in order to do that, the Linda Lamone for Life law must be repealed.