Board postpones vote on state election administrator as one presumed candidate receives an endorsement

June 5, 2023

Maryland Matters

Four members of the Maryland State Board of Elections Monday postponed an expected vote to name a new state elections administrator during a virtual meeting. The vote was delayed until Thursday to allow a fifth member to attend. Screenshot

Maryland’s State Board of Elections delayed on Monday an expected vote to name a new elections administrator.

William Voelp, chair of the board, said the delay was needed to allow for Michael Summers, a Democratic member of the panel, to attend the meeting.

“The board unanimously feels uncomfortable taking a vote without the full five complement — both parties being fully represented here today,” Voelp, a Republican, said after a roughly 15-minute closed session to discuss “compensation or hiring of employees.”

Summers was not present because of what Voelp described as “an emergent situation.”

Voelp did not elaborate on the circumstances of Summers’ absence.

The meeting to name a successor is now scheduled for Thursday at 3 p.m. The date was the earliest that the board could hold its meeting and comply with the notification requirements of the Maryland Open Meetings Act.

Currently, the state’s election board is split with three seats held by Republicans — a situation that will change on July 1.

Under Maryland law, a supermajority of the board — four of the five members — can hire or fire the elections administrator.

It is unclear if Summers’ vote was needed to meet that four-vote threshold.

The delay comes after an expedited search that began last month.

Lamone announced her departure in March, capping a roughly quarter-century career heading the agency.

John Willis, the former secretary of State under Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D), questioned the fast pace of the candidate search.

“I was quite surprised when they came out with their timeline, which I thought was very accelerated for a national search,” said Willis. “I’m not sure they got the national search that they said they wanted. Two weeks is hardly enough time to do that.”

Maryland Elections Administrator Linda H. Lamone (left) and Deputy Administrator Nikki Charlson at a legislative hearing. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines

Willis is backing Deputy State Elections Administrator Nikki Charlson as the successor to Lamone. Charlson previously worked for Willis in the Office of the State Secretary.

“I just know how good Nikki is. It was just as a letter of support. I encouraged the board to compare people, but I didn’t compare anybody,” said Willis. “I just was trying to point out some qualities I thought Nikki possessed that would be valued to the board and to the public.”

Charlson is presumed to be one of two current officials at the Maryland State Board of Elections who are finalists for the position. She has previously declined to comment on whether or not she applied for the position.

Willis’ letter was sent to members of the board. He said Gov. Wes Moore (D) also later received a copy.

A spokesperson for Moore declined to comment.

Willis discussed the letter, which he said was prompted by a desire for an informed and independent selection process.

“What you want the board to do is to be independent in their judgment, not unduly influenced by personality or politics,” said Willis. “Whenever any part of government endeavors to exercise more authority than another there are problems often occur.”

Willis said ambiguity in state election laws allows “political people” in the legislature to assert themselves into “the day-to-day parts” election administration.

“You know how Annapolis works,” he said.

A copy of the letter wasn’t immediately available. Willis said he had not considered whether to make it public.

Willis said the legislature unfairly criticizes the work that the agency has done over the years.

“It just seems to be an information gap,” said Willis, adding that Charlson should be favored over Jared DeMarinis, the agency’s director of candidacy and campaign finance. DeMarinis has also not confirmed his interest in the position but is widely believed to be one of the three finalists.

Jared DeMarinis, director of candidacy and campaign finance for the Maryland State Board of Elections, during an April bill signing. File photo by Bryan P. Sears.

“I don’t think they have a full picture,” he said. “They know Jared because he’s been lobbying for the board for a long while and they interact with him. So that may just be more familiarity. I encourage the board to look at objective criteria, not about people’s opinion about personality. Look at objective criteria. Who’s the best problem solver? Who has the actual breadth of experience who has the ability to handle the complexity of the job? It’s not about getting along. It’s not a perfunctory position. It’s a real, working hard working position. It’s not a lobbying position or whatever.”

Both Charlson and DeMarinis have roughly two-decades experience each at the state agency Willis said is run well “by any objective measure.”

Senate Education, Energy and Environment Vice Chair Cheryl C. Kagan (D-Montgomery) responded to Willis’ comments.

“I’ve long admired John Willis and appreciate his knowledge and expertise,” she said. “He can weigh in and share his thoughts with anyone he wants. Ultimately, it’s the board of elections that has the votes, that analyzed resumes, conducted the interviews and presumably will deliberate and make a decision.”

Kagan, a frequent and vocal critic of Lamone, sponsored legislation that returned the election board’s authority to hire or fire an elections administrator.

That authority was diluted in 2005 by a law that required Senate confirmation of a new elections director before a sitting director could be ousted. The law was changed after then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) attempted to have Lamone booted from her job.

Kagan’s bill was signed into law by Moore (D) earlier this year. It took effect on June 1.

Kagan hailed the delayed vote to name a successor as a positive.

“I want to commend members of the state board of elections from both parties for postponing this important meeting in order to have all five members present,” said Kagan. “These deliberations and this vote are too important to have any absences. I am hoping that on Thursday, there will be consensus, bipartisan consensus and hopefully unanimity in the selection of Maryland’s new SBE administrator.”

Last week, the board interviewed three finalists for the position.

Voelp, in a recent interview declined to identify the candidates, calling it a personnel matter.

Voelp said the pool of applicants included both in-state and out-of-state candidates.

Kagan sidestepped a question about whether or not she has expressed support for a candidate.

Sen. Cheryl C. Kagan (D-Montgomery). Photo by Bryan P. Sears.

“I have not endorsed a candidate to be Linda’s successor,” said Kagan. “I don’t have a vote in the process. I have not presumed to write a letter or tweet or do a Facebook post on behalf of any of the candidates or any of the three finalists.”

When asked if she expressed support to any member of the board, Kagan said: “I talk to a lot of people about a lot of things related to election law and related to the urgent need to get new leadership and the board of elections — a new administrator at the board of elections. Those conversations have been ongoing for many years.”