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Oaks’ name stays on primary ballot, Md. high court rules

H. Mark Stichel. (File)

H. Mark Stichel. (File)

ANNAPOLIS – Former state senator Nathaniel T. Oaks’ name will remain on primary election ballots next month despite his desire – and that of a group of voters in his Baltimore district — that it be withdrawn, Maryland’s top court ruled Wednesday afternoon.

The Court of Appeals made its decision in a one-page order signed by Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera and stating that it will explain the reasons for its ruling at a later date. The high court said the decision has the concurrence of a majority, noting dissent by Judges Shirley M. Watts and Michele D. Hotten.

The court rendered its decision within hours of hearing arguments from the State Board of Elections and the concerned voters.

Oaks, who pleaded guilty to fraud in March, attempted last month to withdraw his name as a listed candidate but missed statutory deadlines for removal, and strict enforcement of election-law deadlines ensures candidates are treated in an “evenhanded, clear and equitable way,” the board’s lawyer, Assistant Maryland Attorney General Andrea W. Trento, told the high court.

But a lawyer for concerned voters in the district countered that Oaks’ presence on the June 26 “official ballot” will mislead voters into thinking the Democrat is a “viable candidate” when his expected prison sentence this fall for fraud will make him ineligible to be on the general election ballot in November. Voters who see Oaks’ name and choose him would be casting a meaningless vote, said attorney H. Mark Stichel.

Judges on the high court appeared to be as divided as the attorneys, with several asking how the board could ever craft fair exceptions to the statutory deadlines and others voicing concern about the likelihood of voter confusion and a flawed primary election in Maryland’s 41st legislative district.

Judge Robert N. McDonald wondered aloud what “criteria” the board could establish for a candidate’s belated withdrawal. Judge Joseph M. Getty said the statutory deadlines give the board certainty in cases, such as Oaks’, in which the candidate will likely – but not certainly — be disqualified by the time of the general election.

“Near certainty works in horseshoes (but) for the Board of Elections it is mere speculation,” Getty added.

Watts said the board’s staunch defense of the statutory deadlines as mandatory ignored the potential for confusion of voters if Oaks remains on the ballot.

“This is not a complaint by Mr. Oaks,” Watts said, noting that voters brought the challenge.

Hotten also questioned Trento on whether the deadlines were too rigid, to the detriment of voters. Judge Clayton Greene Jr. asked him about the board’s responsibility to avoid voter confusion.

Trento was pressing the election board’s appeal of Anne Arundel County Circuit Judge Glenn L. Klavans’ order last week that Oaks’ name be struck from the ballot after deciding his withdrawal as a registered voter last month, at Stichel’s request, made him ineligible for candidacy.

But Trento said Oaks’ effort to withdraw by canceling his voter registration does not satisfy the statutory requirements of withdrawal, which a candidate must have completed by March 1 this year. The board had until March 9 to remove names from the ballot if it learned of the candidate’s death or disqualification, which could be based on his or her “currently” serving a prison sentence, Trento added.

Oaks is not scheduled to be sentenced until after the June 26 primary.

“The law in this case cannot be more clear,” Trento told the high court. “Nathaniel Oaks meets all of these (statutory) conditions” for remaining on the ballot, he added.

The strict deadlines enable the board to have thousands of ballots printed up without concern that they will have to be reprinted – at great delay and cost – because a name was belatedly added or withdrawn, Trento said.

“The ballot preparation process would grind to a halt” without “strict and clear filing and withdrawal deadlines,” he added.  “The statute speaks in terms that don’t leave room for exceptions.”

But Stichel said having Oaks on the ballot will cause “significant confusion to voters” and raise state and federal constitutional concerns about the right of voters to cast a knowing and meaningful vote.

“Every voter has a single vote to cast,” said Stichel, of Astrachan Gunst Thomas P.C. in Baltimore, adding “the imprimatur of the ballot has a tendency to mislead” if Oaks’ name is on it.

Oaks resigned from the Senate on March 28, one day before pleading guilty in federal court to wire fraud and honest services wire fraud in connection with a phony development scheme he participated in during his time in the House of Delegates. Gov. Larry Hogan this week appointed Jill P. Carter, a Democrat, to complete Oaks’ Senate term.

The case before the high court is Linda H. Lamone v. Nancy Lewin et al., No. 85 September Term 2017.

— Daily Record reporters Heather Cobun and Bryan P. Sears contributed to this article.

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