Paula Bienenfeld was attempting to run as an independent in County Council District 4. Credit: Campaign photo

This story was updated at 5:25 p.m. Sept. 7, 2022, to include additional details and comments.

A North Bethesda woman has been unsuccessful in challenging a Montgomery County Board of Elections’ decision that disqualified her from running as an unaffiliated, or independent, candidate in County Council District 4.

Paula Bienenfeld, an archaeologist and longtime local political observer, declared she was running for the council district — which covers North Bethesda, Kensington, Silver Spring and Takoma Park — earlier this year. She said she is deciding whether to appeal Wednesday’s court decision that prevented her from getting on the general election ballot.

In order to be included on the ballot as an independent candidate, she needed to gather signatures from 1% of the eligible registered voters in the district, for a total of 1,019 signatures, per state law. According to a news release from Bienenfeld, she submitted a petition with more than 1,350 signatures on July 29. The submission deadline was Aug. 1.

But the county Board of Elections determined that hundreds of the signatures were invalid, leaving Bienenfeld with 997 approved signatures as of Aug. 18, according to the news release. That meant she was 22 signatures short of the required threshold.

Bienenfeld’s attorneys appealed the board’s decision on Aug. 29. The release said the county elections board admitted making mistakes while reviewing the petition. Eight signatures were added, meaning Bienenfeld was 14 signatures short of the 1,019 required to appear on the Nov. 8 general election ballot.

On Wednesday, Bienenfeld and her attorneys argued in Montgomery County Circuit Court that more signatures should be accepted. Judge Steven Salant agreed, but said only four signatures would be allowed, meaning Bienenfeld didn’t qualify for the general election ballot. 

During the court hearing, Bienenfeld was joined by Mateo Forero-Norena, her attorney, while Kevin Karpinski, the attorney for the county elections board, was joined by Daniel Korbin, an assistant attorney general for Maryland.

Karpinski notified the court that the elections board had made mistakes on seven signatures, not eight, meaning Bienenfeld needed to reverse the board’s decision on 15 signatures.

Bienenfeld challenged more than 20 decisions made by the elections board. Forero-Norena contended that the voters’ signatures should have been counted for a variety of reasons. Some signatures showed that voters had signed with a middle initial, instead of a full middle name, which should have counted per state law, he argued.

But multiple times, Karpinski argued that the middle initial was either not legible or could not be seen at all. And in other cases, he said the name did not match the name of the voter registered with the county and state.

For other signatures, dates were the point of contention. Some voters had marked when they signed in the order of date, month and year instead of month, date and year. Some hadn’t included the full date.

Forero-Norena said that multiple other signatures should be counted because the person who handed out the petition had verified the dates. But Karpinski said on numerous challenges that either a clear date couldn’t be identified or that one hadn’t been provided at all.

Throughout the hearing, Salant asked multiple questions of both parties. Representatives of both Bienenfeld and the county observed as Salant was tasked with determining whether the signatures qualified under state law.

During his late-afternoon ruling, Salant explained his position on each challenged signature. By the end of his review, he concluded the elections board had improperly rejected four of them, meaning Bienenfeld had a total of 1,008 valid signatures.

Bienenfeld said she would decide whether to appeal the court’s decision to the Court of Special Appeals within the next few days. But the case illustrates the larger issue of how difficult it is for independent candidates to get on the ballot, she said.

She said that her attorney reviewed the county’s voter rolls and found several mistakes, particularly when it comes to the names registered with the county. Ultimately, the state statute used in court Wednesday to review names and other parts of the petition prevents independent candidates from getting on the ballot because it’s “onerous,” she added.

“I think it’s this larger issue of if the intent of the statute is to prevent fraud, that’s not what the implementation is, that’s not what’s happening [here in court],” Bienenfeld said.

Karpinski said after the hearing that he agreed with Salant’s decision. The elections board staff reviewed the signatures to see if they were valid, not the members of the board, he said.

He added that he believes the petition process is suitable for independents to get on the ballot, but that it can always be changed.

“That’s why we have elected officials that enact laws to determine how many signatures you need,” Karpinski said about the petition requirement. “That’s way above my paygrade.”