From Where I Stand: Election rules need some reworking
By Joe Murchison
The Laurel city election process could use some changes.
The election last month was the most active in the city’s recent memory, with more candidates (16 total) and more heated contention between the candidates. The Laurel Board of Elections caught some of that heat.
Some of the candidates disputed rules established by the board. Others said some of the rules were new and surprising. And five organizations, including Progressive Maryland and CASA in Action, complained to the Maryland Board of Elections that the Laurel board had treated mayoral candidate Martin Mitchell unfairly and that one of its rules applied against him was unconstitutional. (The state elections board replied that it had no jurisdiction over local election boards.)
Given these controversies, here are some suggestions for improving the process.
Allow candidates to start campaigning earlier. The elections board adopted a rule that no candidate could begin campaigning before the board had officially certified them. Certification included verifying that their application information was correct, that they were in good standing with the city in payment of taxes and other obligations, and that they were complying with campaign finance rules.
This seems reasonable. But what seems less reasonable is that the elections board didn’t begin their certification process until the filing deadline of July 21, even though candidates were allowed to submit their applications as early as May 1.
Are candidates supposed to wait for up to two and a half months after filing for candidacy and refrain from doing any campaigning? That puts restraint (and initiative) to an unreasonable test. Most of the mayoral candidates consequently broke this rule.
Instead, the elections board should begin the certification process for candidates as soon as they submit their applications. Let candidates who show the initiative to file early be rewarded with an earlier start on their campaign.
This also would avoid a possible constitutional issue. The five organizations that wrote to the Maryland Board of Elections noted that U.S. District Judge Peter Messitte in 1999 struck down a Prince George’s County Board of Elections rule that prohibited the posting of campaign signs more than 45 days before an election. The rule impinged on candidates’ First Amendment rights of free expression, Messitte ruled.
Require campaign-sign permissions. Speaking of campaign signs, they were a source of contention during the recent election in ways beyond the city’s rule against posting them prior to a candidate’s certification. Candidates posted them along roads on public property — a definite no-no. Candidates posted them on private property without permission, simply adding them to other candidates’ signs that had been approved by the property owner. Several candidates also complained of having their signs vandalized or destroyed.
Signs are inevitably going to cause issues. But how about this: Require candidates to obtain written permission from all property owners where they would like to post signs and submit these documents to city election officials. That would cut down on the number of signs posted without permission. City officials could quickly verify which signs among a cluster of signs on a commercial property were there with permission, and which were not. The officials then could take action to have the illegal signs removed.
Clarify rules on campaign contributions. The winner of the mayoral race, Keith Sydnor, submitted his first campaign finance report with email addresses of his donors rather than their home addresses. The elections board should make clear that home addresses are required; citizens deserve to know where a candidate’s donations are coming from. (The elections board did eventually require Sydnor to fix the list and supply donors’ home addresses.)
Sydnor began raising campaign funds from donors prior to his certification as a candidate, other mayoral candidates did, too, prior to being certified. This was against the election board’s rules, yet Sydnor was not penalized. An elections board spokesperson said Sydnor was allowed to collect money because he still had a campaign fund dating back to his last run for city council, in 2021. Sorry, but that isn’t fair. Sydnor was clearly collecting money for a mayoral campaign, not a city council one. A candidate who has previously held office shouldn’t gain that kind of campaign advantage over an opponent who hasn’t.
Clarify when candidates will be fined, why, and by how much. Martin Mitchell received two $1,000 fines for posting signs before he was certified to run for mayor and for refusing to take them down. But other candidates distributed campaign literature before certification and were not fined.
The elections board needs to create written guidelines on which campaign violations will result in fines, and how much the fines will be.
For instance, should posting signs in public rights of way result in a fine? If so, should the fine come on the first violation, or the second or the third? How much should the first fine be? If the candidate continues to violate the public right of way rule, how much should additional fines be?
Such guidelines might not anticipate every type of campaign violation or controversy, but creating them will help the board treat all candidates equally and fairly.
Finally, these suggestions are not to negate the great thanks we owe the volunteers who served on the elections board. Their unpaid efforts are crucial to our democracy, and their job is not easy. We are fortunate for their service.
The views expressed in this column belong to its author. The Laurel Independent reserves the right to edit “From Where I Stand” submissions for brevity and clarity.