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Judge denies attempt to remove Oaks from primary ballot

State Sen. Nathaniel T. Oaks, D-Baltimore City, is accused of wire fraud, accepting illegal payments and accepting bribes in exchange for using is position to influence business matters. (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

Former state Sen. Nathaniel T. Oaks, D-Baltimore. (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

ANNAPOLIS — Former state senator Nathaniel Oaks will remain on June’s primary election ballot after a judge on Friday denied an attempt by voters to remove his name.

Anne Arundel County Circuit Judge Glenn L. Klavans held that because Oaks, who pleaded guilty to felony wire fraud charges in federal court last month, will not yet be a disqualified candidate as of the June 28 primary date, the voters’ request relief was not appropriate.

Under the state constitution, a candidate is ineligible for office if they are not a registered voter, and a registered voter cannot be serving a prison sentence for a felony.

Oaks’ sentencing is scheduled for July, and Klavans said though it is a near certainty the Baltimore Democrat will be sentenced to jail time and become ineligible, that is not yet the case.

“I’m constrained by the singular fact that (Oaks’ eligibility) remains legally speculative today and close only counts in horseshoes,” Klavan said.

H. Mark Stichel, who represents three voters in Maryland Senate District 41 who filed their complaint last week,said after conferring with co-counsel Elizabeth Harlan and speaking with their clients Friday afternoon, the plaintiffs planned to reach out to Oaks over the weekend and ask him to take steps to withdraw his voter registration. If successful, they will ask Klavans to reconsider his ruling.

“It would be our strong preference that Oaks would do the right thing and ask that his name be withdrawn (from voter rolls) which makes him ineligible,” said Stichel, of Astrachan Gunst Thomas PC in Baltimore.

Oaks signed an affidavit last week stating he has ceased campaigning and will decline the nomination if he wins the primary.

If Oaks does not agree to the strategy, Stichel said the plaintiffs will appeal Klavans’ ruling. The case would go straight to the Court of Appeals.

Attorneys with the Maryland Office of the Attorney General, who represented Linda H. Lamone, the administrator for the Board of Elections, declined to comment on the ruling.

The case is one of two lawsuits filed by residents and candidates in Oaks’ district who say the board should remove Oaks’ name or risk confusing voters and potentially leading them to vote for a candidate who will be ineligible to serve if elected.

Maryland law does not allow the Board of Elections to remove a currently qualified candidate’s name from the ballot after the deadline for withdrawal, which was March 1, and deadline to remove deceased or otherwise disqualified candidates, which was March 9, assistant attorney general Andrea Trento argued in court Friday. Oaks pleaded guilty to wire fraud and honest services wire fraud on March 29.

“Every election regulation involves some form of line-drawing and there will be some circumstances that don’t make sense,” Trento said, calling the circumstances of this case “not ideal.”

The plaintiffs countered the rule – stating “the name of a candidate shall remain on the ballot” so long as the candidate has not withdrawn or become disqualified –  should be read to be directory, not mandatory. They also contended that the withdrawal deadline was arbitrarily early and therefore unconstitutional.

“There’s no one that wants Mr. Oaks’ name on the ballot except the defendants who say, ‘We can’t, our hands are tied,'” said Stichel. “We’re here to ask the court to untie their hands.”

Deadline approaching

But Natasha Walker, who manages the election management systems for the state, testified that test ballots are already scheduled to be printed Monday and then sent to the local boards of elections to test election equipment. To remove Oaks’ name would impact all Baltimore ballots, not just the two precincts where his name appears, because once one ballot in the jurisdiction is changed, the process starts over for all of them, she said.

“It’s not just about removing the name from the ballot,” she said. “The ballots are the first piece of the election puzzle.”

Walker said removing Oaks’ name at this point is “doable” but would be challenging, citing a compressed testing time frame that could run up against the May 12 deadline for sending overseas and military absentee ballots. Absentee ballots are scheduled to be pulled for testing Wednesday, and that cannot be undone.

Klavans questioned both parties about the plaintiffs’ argument that voters will be disenfranchised if an ineligible candidate appears on the ballot and said if Oaks were currently disqualified, the harm to voters would outweigh the “uncomfortable but adequate timing” for the board to comply with an order to remove his name from ballots.

The case is Nancy Lewin et al. v. Linda H. Lamone, 02C18001013.

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