A hearing is scheduled for next month in a lawsuit brought by two Republican political candidates who are suing to stop Annapolis from mailing ballots to all registered voters in its upcoming primary and general elections.
County executive candidate Herb McMillan and city Ward 6 candidate George Gallagher filed a lawsuit in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court on Thursday to stop the city from implementing the system of vote by mail.
In an emergency hearing on Friday afternoon, Associate Circuit Court Judge William C. Mulford denied a motion by plaintiffs’ attorney Charles Muskin for a temporary restraining order. A hearing is scheduled for August 2 to consider the legal arguments in the case, Muskin said.
In that hearing, the court will hear arguments from Muskin, as well as attorneys for the city and county board of elections, on two legal issues raised in the lawsuit. The first will focus on the legality of sending ballots directly to voters; the second is whether the city is allowed to pay for the postage of returned ballots, Muskin said.
The lawsuit claims the system approved by the Annapolis Election Supervisory Board in May, which includes payment of postage for all returned ballots, violates city code and is unconstitutional.
“The decisions of the municipal council exceed its authority. In short, the Council has unilaterally gone rogue,” the complaint reads.
Among the defendants named in the lawsuit are City of Annapolis Chief Financial Officer Jodee Dickinson, Annapolis Board of Elections Director Eileen Leahy and Anne Arundel County Board of Elections Chair Brenda Yarema.
“This is yet another attack on voters,” Mayor Gavin Buckley said in a statement. “Anyone who would do that is trying to sow division in Annapolis and that is unacceptable.”
Gallagher, who waited outside Mulford’s chambers to hear the outcome of the hearing, said the trial was a necessary step to ensure the city adheres to its election code.
“We will have our day in court,” he said.
If the city council wants to use a mail-in voting system, it would have to draft a bill, hold hearings and change the law, McMillan said in a phone interview.
“I find it amusing that the mayor says that it divides. He ignores the law; it’s pretty much the most divisive thing you can do,” he said.
Through a city spokesperson, Leahy said, “We will prove that we have the right to use mail-in ballots to increase voter turnout.”
The Annapolis City Code gives the Election Commission the power to “make all necessary rules and regulations” to register voters and conduct elections. It provides two ways to vote, either in person or by absentee, which requires filling out an application to vote. The code also says that voters, not the city, must pay for postage related to ballots.
“By deciding to simply send an absentee/mail-in ballot to all eligible voters, without requiring the voter to apply for that ballot, the City Council ignored the clear wording of the city code. “, we read in the complaint.
Anne Arundel County Electoral Council attorney James Praley said the county’s position was not to be a party to the lawsuit because it was a municipal election. The county council provides voting machines and other infrastructure for the city to hold its elections every four years as a courtesy and because Annapolis residents also live in the county, he said.
“We have know-how. We provide administrative services. We are really not the decision makers,” he said.
Since the announcement of the new mail-in voting system, some Republicans have criticized the move, questioning its legality and the potential for fraud.
Last week, Leahy and County Elections Officer Joe Torre met with the Annapolis City Council to answer questions about their election plans, answering numerous questions about potential voter fraud, signature verification and d other problems.
Democratic board members Leahy and board member Briayna Cuffie approved the new system after discussions with Torre and the county board of elections. The parties agreed that the 42-day period between the September 21 primary election and the November 2 general election was not enough time to run a ballot request system similar to that used in the 2020 presidential election.
Republican board member Cliff Myers was not present at the meeting when the plan was approved, but would have voted no on the proposal, he later said. Myers has since left the council because he no longer lives in the city as required by municipal law. City Council will consider a replacement for Myers at its Monday meeting.
Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman called the lawsuit disappointing.
“It is unfortunate that our judges and our justice system have to take time to deal with this when there is important work to be done,” Pittman said, adding that he had full confidence in the county board of elections to help. to administer the city’s elections.
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“They were very clear after the 2020 (Maryland) primary that it was working well sending ballots to registered voters,” he said. “I’m glad Annapolis has moved in this direction and it’s very important that they are allowed to do so.”
McMillan, a former Annapolis alderman and Maryland delegate representing Annapolis, has launched a campaign to become the Republican nominee in hopes of unseating Pittman next year. Gallagher, who sought to represent Ward 6 in a 2019 special election, is running for the City Council seat for the second time. He will likely face Democratic incumbent DaJuan Gay, D-Ward 6, in the Nov. 2 general election.
The ACLU of Maryland commended Annapolis’ efforts to expand voter access and encouraged other state and local election officials to follow suit.
“We commend the City of Annapolis for taking steps to strengthen local democracy by giving voters more options in how they vote,” said Amy Cruice, Director of the ACLU’s Voter Protection Program. of Maryland. “In Maryland in 2020, we saw an increase in voter turnout in part due to mailing in ballots from registered voters, which was done in a safe and efficient manner.”
Daryl Jones, a former county council member who now co-leads the voting rights group Transformative Justice Coalition, said the lawsuit is a localized attempt to reduce public access to the ballot, likening it to efforts by legislatures led by Republicans in other states like Texas and Florida are passing restrictive election laws.
For months, Jones’s group and other advocates have been pushing Congress to pass the For the People Act, a sweeping voting rights and campaign finance law currently being debated in the US Senate.
“We’re pushing for national federalization of voting standards because there are these local groups, these local governments that are restricting access to the ballot boxes,” Jones said. “And the only way to get over that is to get the feds to step in and say, ‘That’s the norm. This is what you must do.