Maryland’s nomination process didn’t stop a man who federal prosecutors say participated in the January 6, 2021 riots at the U.S. Capitol from being appointed to the board that oversees state elections, despite vetting and background checks.
Carlos Ayala of Salisbury was arrested on Tuesday by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Authorities say they identified Ayala among the crowd of rioters and that his actions along with others interrupted the certification of the 2020 presidential election.
Prosecutors allege the 52-year-old Ayala, wearing a hooded American flag sweatshirt, climbed over police barricades and reached the Upper West Terrace of the Capitol building that day, according to court documents. Video footage also shows Ayala outside the Capitol waving a black flag attached to a PVC pipe with wording of “We the people” and “DEFEND” and featuring a picture of an M16 rifle, according to court records.
Ayala has been charged with civil disorder, a felony, as well as multiple misdemeanors in connection with an attempt to overturn the results of a presidential election, calling into question the vetting process for the state’s top election officials.
As one of the five-member Maryland State Board of elections, Ayala, who resigned from his position on Thursday, would have been responsible for overseeing the canvass and certification of Maryland’s election results — including the 2024 presidential election.
Candidates for the board positions are recommended to the governor’s office by the main political parties and vetted by the executive and legislative branches before the Senate decides whether to confirm them. Last year, this process rejected two of the three nominations offered by the Maryland Republican Party Chair Nicole Beus Harris.
But Ayala got through.
Beus Harris said in a statement: “The MDGOP believes in the 1st Amendment and in the American principle that one is innocent until proven guilty. That said, Mr. Ayala did choose to resign because he believes that the 2024 elections process and the State Board of Elections is extremely important and should not be muddied with distraction.”
Ayala’s lawyer, one-time Trump attorney Jim Trusty, declined to comment on behalf of his client.
Since his arrest, officials responsible for judging Ayala’s qualifications say they found no reason not to endorse his nomination. A Banner review of Ayala’s social media and other publicly available materials turned up no red flags.
The Moore administration and Maryland Senate President Bill Ferguson declined to comment. But a spokesperson for good-government watchdog Common Cause Maryland said the charges against Ayala should be a wake-up call for state officials, who should consider changing the process for appointing members to the elections board.
So how did a person who joined a destructive mob attempting to disrupt America’s democratic election process, end up in a state-level position to run one?
Here’s what we know so far.
When there’s a vacancy on the state board of elections, each party’s state leadership sends names to the governor, and the governor can only pick from the names they send, according to state law. Three members must be from the governor’s political party, and two are from the minority party.
The state elections board is responsible for the logistics and administrative decisions behind executing elections, from determining where elections can be held to the process for counting ballots. They’re responsible for the security of electronic voting machines, distribute and secure drop boxes and certify Maryland’s results.
As one of five board members and one of two Republicans, Ayala likely could not have carried a vote to make major changes, but he could influence voters’ opinions.
Chioma Chukwu, deputy executive director for American Oversight, a government transparency watchdog, said election deniers don’t necessarily need a majority vote on an elections board to erode the public’s trust in the process. The position itself provides a pulpit.
For example, someone on an elections board in any state could push to ban voting machines, question the machines’ accuracy, or make it harder to tally votes or delay a vote count. These moves even by one person can make news and raise questions, making it seem like there are problems where none exist, she said.
”Delays and errors can be used and weaponized by election deniers to question the legitimacy of election results,” she said.
Maryland Republican Party officials declined to say how they choose their picks. But a spokesperson for the Maryland Democratic Party said in choosing their candidates they first ask for input from Democratic leaders across the state before an internal committee gives an up or down vote.
Then, they check the person’s voter registration, voting history, and perform a background check before sending them onto the governor, the spokesperson said.
The Governor’s office vets nominees
The first candidate submitted by the Maryland GOP stopped at Moore’s desk.
William T. Newton, who has run for positions in the General Assembly and the U.S. House, has filled a website and his social media feeds with bits and pieces of information he argues adds up to evidence of election fraud. Multiple reviews of 2020 election results have found no evidence of systemic fraud, a point supported by a researcher hired by Trump to find election fraud.
Moore wrote in a letter to Beus Harris that Newton did not meet the standards to serve in the role. So, the Republicans put forward another candidate.
Beus Harris, the wife of Maryland’s only Republican Congressman, U.S. Rep. Andy Harris who voted against certifying the 2020 election results, then recommended Christine McCloud.
The Howard County woman made it past the governor’s desk and on to a Senate panel, where about a half dozen senators asked her opinions on a range of topics including election fraud and her voting habits. She told the committee she hadn’t regularly voted and had never volunteered with her county board of elections. She said of mail-in ballots: “I don’t think they should be allowed.”
The committee rejected her nomination.
The administration’s background check does not involve an in-person interview with all candidates, but it does involve a search of publicly available documents, according to a Moore administration spokesperson. The search can include, but is not limited to, criminal databases, court records, sex offender registries, social media profiles, voting history, campaign donation history, and other publicly accessible sources.
The use of social media aliases can thwart profile searches, and sealed documents connected to ongoing federal investigations would not have shown up.
Like McCloud, Ayala, too, made it past this gate and on to the Senate.
Senate committee review, confirmation
During the time state and legislative leaders were trying to fill the elections board seats, Sen. Pam Beidle chaired the Senate Executive Nominations Committee. This 19-member panel of Republican and Democratic senators decides whether to advance the governor’s recommendations for a full Senate vote.
The Anne Arundel County Democrat said she oversaw hundreds of nominations in 2023 — 999, she recalled someone telling her. Moore had just taken office, and the new governor gets to pick his own team to run state agencies and hundreds of boards and commissions.
Despite the spike in volume, Beidle said she remembered Ayala’s hearing.
“He was very likable and had been involved in the Republican Party and seemed like a really good choice,” she said. She was “shocked” by the news of his arrest.
In addition to the Moore administration’s background check, she said her committee did their own search which yielded no red flags.
“We didn’t find anything on him,” Beidle said.
So when it came time for his hearing, there was no cause for senators to question him, she said.
Ayala was introduced by Sen. Mary Beth Carozza, a Republican who represents Wicomico, Somerset and Worcester counties. By custom, the senators from a nominee’s district typically present them to a Senate committee for approval.
Carozza did not respond to requests for comment, but during Ayala’s hearing told her colleagues of his community service with Haitian immigrants and mentoring children, and called him a “very well-respected business and community leader.” Ayala is also poultry giant Frank Perdue’s stepson, and held many top positions at Perdue Farms.
Ayala told the committee he was “humbled” to be considered for the “extremely important position” and that he “recognized the importance of this board.” He said it would be “his honor” to ensure “that people have fair and equal access to the polls — super important.”
After he spoke, no senator on the Executive Nominations Committee asked Ayala any questions at the hearing, despite two previous Republican Party nominations being rejected.
The panel consented to his nomination, and in March, the full Senate, all 47 members, voted to confirm Ayala.
‘Trust in our system’
Ayala took his seat in July as one of two Republican board members, a minority on the panel. It wasn’t long after that Ayala broached the perceived lack of trust in elections held by some voters.
“My concern is really around trust in our system,” Ayala said. “That’s probably one of our greatest threats, right now, is that you’ve got a decent chunk of the country who doesn’t trust the overall system,” he said. Restoring trust in the elections process was “critical,” he told the board.
Candidates for office and voting rights organizations traditionally purchase voter registration lists to sign people up to vote or knock on doors to meet voters. But after Trump lost in 2020, Republicans scoured the lists for evidence of voter fraud.
A Democratic elections board member acknowledged that while those sentiments exist, they are fueled by certain media and political figures for their own gain and don’t reflect any actual problems with the state’s elections.
Since the matter was already settled, there was nothing Ayala or his Republican counterpart, who also expressed his dislike for the restriction, could do or say to change it.
Does the process need to change?
In a post-insurrection political era where divides have continued to widen, Beidle said Ayala’s arrest serves as a reminder of the extremism that exists in both parties, and extremists, too, volunteer for appointments.
“While we all would probably be much happier if we had moderate representation on issues, where people can listen to both sides of the story ... it’s not where we are are right now,” she said.
Ken Ulman, chair of the Maryland Democratic Party, said he’d be open to the legislature changing the vetting process and he had some suggestions, such as making appointees sign an affidavit that they weren’t at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and have never interfered with an election process.
“I would never have thought that we would need to ask those questions,” he said.
While Ayala could not have single-handedly disrupted how Maryland elections were run in the immediate, the election of a Republican governor could flip the board’s majority party and change that, Ulman said.
Ulman called on the Republican Party to scrutinize their vetting process to prevent this from happening again.
“It’s now really incumbent on the Republican Party, frankly, to demonstrate that they care about election security and election integrity,” he said.
Brenna Smith contributed reporting.
This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Ken Ulman's name.