A Senate committee advanced the nomination of a Republican state elections board candidate, weeks after delaying the vote, to give senators more time to further investigate her political views.

Howard County elections board member Diane Butler’s nomination will now get a vote before the full Senate. The Executive Nominations Committee approved her candidacy in a 12 to 3 decision.

One of the no votes was Committee Vice Chair Sen. Clarence Lam. He said he could not vote for Butler after speaking with people who had worked with her on “election-related” matters. Many expressed concerns to him about Butler’s judgment and motivations when she had questioned election processes in the past, he said.

During her March 11 hearing, Lam referenced a letter Butler had sent to the Maryland State Board of Elections raising concerns about the elections process. A social media post comparing COVID-19 masking guidance to armbands Nazis forced Jewish people to wear during World War II also drew questions from senators.

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“Particularly in this day and age where there’s certainly increased scrutiny of nominees and state board of elections as well as the need to have individuals with the highest integrity serving in those roles,” said the Democrat, who serves Howard and Anne Arundel counties.

Democratic Sens. Will Smith and Cory McCray of Baltimore joined Lam in voting against Butler’s nomination.

Before the committee vote, Sen. Craig Zucker said leaders should be mindful of their words regardless of being in the public eye before voting yes.

“I hope it doesn’t reflect how this individual may or may not be on the board of elections, but I think our words matters,” the Montgomery County Democrat said.

Senators have put extra scrutiny on elections board nominees after federal authorities in January charged a sitting Republican board member who is accused of participating in the Jan. 6, 2021 breach of the U.S. Capitol. Carlos Ayala resigned from the post after the FBI charged him with civil disorder, a felony and multiple misdemeanor offenses.

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During Ayala’s 2023 hearing, senators failed to question the Salisbury resident’s fitness for the position, even after the approval process had previously rejected two Republican picks.

In the months since Ayala’s arrest, senators began asking nominees from both parties their whereabouts on the day a pro-Donald Trump mob attempted to stop the certification of the 2020 presidential election.

Senate President Bill Ferguson said there is now a “heightened bar” when vetting candidates and that members of both political parties should be focused on protecting elections. The top senator said determining whether a nominee will promote or seek to undermine the future of democracy has become “an art more than science.”

“I feel like we learned a lesson last go-round, and so there is more scrutiny, rightfully, being undertaken,” the Baltimore Democrat said during a Friday news conference. “But at the end of the day, these are nominees from the political parties.”

Unlike other gubernatorial appointments, elections board member candidates come from each party’s state central committee. Members of the governor’s political party hold three seats and the minority party fills two.

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The governor’s office vets each candidate before forwarding the Senate a nominee.

As of Friday, Sen. Cheryl Kagan said she and other senators were still having conversations and learning about Butler’s background.

While she didn’t believe those talks would disqualify Butler’s candidacy, she said “many of us are concerned.”

During her March hearing, Butler told senators she was at home cleaning her fish tank on Jan. 6, 2021 and that she did not believe fraud or interference played a role in the 2020 elections.

She also said state audits assured her that Maryland’s elections were sound, despite a brief period of “sloppy” mail-in ballot counting she witnessed as a Howard County elections board member.

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However, questions lingered over Butler’s social media post.

Senators had “expressed some concerns” and wanted to determine whether the statement was part of a larger pattern, Ferguson said one day after her March 11 hearing.

The comment “seemed pretty extreme,” he said, but it was not connected to election administration. He added that “one singular comment does not tell a whole story.”

Ferguson said he’s willing to accept disagreements on policy and general operation of government. He added Butler’s answers were “forthright” and that he did not hear anything from her that suggested she questioned election integrity or would undermine election administration.

Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify when Nazis forced Jewish people to wear armbands.

Brenda Wintrode covers state government, agencies and politics. Before joining The Baltimore Banner, Wintrode wrote an award winning series of long form investigations for Wisconsin Watch.

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