Debate over international election observers ends in Maryland Senate

February 21, 2018
by Danielle Gaines
The Frederick News Post
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ANNAPOLIS — The debate over Russian influence on American elections reached fever-pitch in the Maryland Senate on Wednesday, when the Senate president entered the debate over international election observers at Maryland polling places on Wednesday, taking the unusual step of removing himself from the rostrum to participate in floor debate.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D) read extensively from a Washington Post column about the indictment of 13 Russians on charges related to interference in the 2016 election through social media and said he wants to limit those allowed in polling places to “bona fide” Marylanders, echoing concerns Republican lawmakers have made on the floor during a debate of fits-and-starts over Senate Bill 190 during the last two weeks.

Miller supported a decision to send the bill back to committee, adding “I hope [it] doesn’t see its rise again any time in the near future.”

“This bill might have been ready for prime time four weeks ago or six years ago or four years ago or even two weeks ago, but what has happened now with the indictment of these 13 men showing how vulnerable our elections are … our elections are very easy to manipulate,” Miller said. “I don’t want these people in the room.”

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Cheryl Kagan (D-Montgomery), said she was surprised by Miller’s nearly six-minute speech and said Republican attacks on her bill were disingenuous.

The state Republican party sent an email last week stating “Maryland Democrats introduce a bill to invite Russians into polling places” and encouraged members to sign a petition urging the bill’s defeat.

“Do you think foreign nationals should be openly invited into our polling places on election day?” the email asked. “… For all the complaints about potential foreign involvement in U.S. elections, Maryland Democrats sure are trying to invite outside influences into our elections.”

Kagan defended the bill, saying that its purpose was to codify uniform rules to guide foreign election observers, who are often directed to Maryland polling places to learn more about democracy on election days because of the state’s proximity to Washington.

“One of the reasons we do this is to be able to educate leaders from other countries about democracy. They learn from us by watching our election process, and then they take it home to their own countries and bring democracy there,” Kagan said. “It’s an important State Department program, and it’s vital that we continue that while also increasing our security.”

Kagan said it was a “topsy-turvy world” when a bill that would have increased election security was derailed.

She said the State Board of Elections will achieve the precautions included in the bill — but will do so through office policy since the legislation is unlikely to re-emerge from committee.

Kagan shared a letter from Linda H. Lamone, the state’s election administrator, which noted that foreign election observers are governed by international agreements and are “forbidden from talking to voters or touching any equipment whatsoever. Local election officials retain their authority to place or remove any observer at any time if the rules are violated.”

The letter also stated that “Maryland will continue to abide by our international treaty commitments without ever endangering the safety and security of our election process.”