By Adam Pagnucco.
With an appointment for the District 20 Senate seat approaching, the time is right to revisit the issue of whether to have special elections for General Assembly vacancies. David Lublin and I have been writing about this for nearly a decade, but the issue will not die.
Under the state’s constitution, when vacancies occur for State Senate and Delegate seats, special elections are not held to fill them. Instead, the county Central Committee of the same party as the seat’s former occupant must submit a name of a successor to the Governor within thirty days, after which the Governor appoints the new legislator. If the Central Committee does not meet the thirty day timeline, the Governor has fifteen days to appoint a successor from the same party as the person formerly holding the seat. If the legislative district covers more than one county, each county Central Committee can send a name with the Governor deciding between them if they differ. The bottom line of the process is this: under most circumstances, the county party Central Committees, who themselves are elected in party primaries, have effective appointment power over these vacancies. And they use that power frequently.
A growing body of evidence shows that Maryland voters prefer special elections over appointments to fill vacancies in elected office. Consider the following:
- In 1998, Montgomery County voters approved a charter amendment providing for special elections for County Council vacancies with 90% of the vote. Montgomery was the second county in Maryland to have special elections for Council Members since Prince George’s already had them in its charter.
- In 2004, Howard County voters approved a charter amendment providing for special elections for County Council vacancies with 88% of the vote.
- In 2014, Maryland voters approved a statewide constitutional amendment providing for special elections for County Executive vacancies with 81% of the vote. The amendment did not require special elections, but it did allow county charters to be amended to allow them upon approval by voters.
- In 2016, Maryland voters approved another statewide constitutional amendment mandating special elections for Comptroller and Attorney General vacancies. Prior to the amendment, vacancies in those offices were filled by gubernatorial appointment. Seventy-three percent of voters supported it.
- Also in 2016, voters in Montgomery and Wicomico Counties voted in favor of charter amendments allowing special elections for their County Executives, which were made possible by the 2014 state constitutional amendment. The charter amendments received 90% of the votes in Montgomery and 75% in Wicomico. Wicomico voters also supported a charter amendment for County Council vacancies with 77% of the vote.
With such overwhelming support among voters for special elections, why aren’t they used for state legislator vacancies? Some lawmakers, including Senators Rich Madaleno, Jamie Raskin and Brian Feldman and Delegates David Moon and Christian Miele (a Republican), have tried to pass constitutional amendments providing for them in various forms. Moon’s 2015 bill had bi-partisan support from very progressive as well as very conservative legislators. But officials from both parties always oppose these bills because they strip power from Central Committees and they teamed up to help kill Moon’s bill last year.
Most of the time, appointees serve about as well in the state legislature as those who are elected, but there are exceptions. A glaring example is the District 24 (Prince George’s) appointment in 2013. Incumbent Delegate Tiffany Alston was removed from office and the Prince George’s County Democratic Central Committee recommended Gregory A. Hall to replace her. But Governor O’Malley refused to accept the appointment because Hall participated in a shooting incident resulting in a murder years ago. O’Malley instead appointed former Delegate Darren Swain to the seat. A year later, Swain was victimized in a bizarre beating and car-jacking in which his assailants accused him of using drugs with them and groping one of them. Alston, Hall and Swain all ran against each other for Delegate in 2014 and all of them lost.
This issue might not be such a big deal if appointments were rare, but they happen all the time. Ten of MoCo’s 32 state legislators – four Senators and six Delegates – were appointed to a seat at some point in their careers. That number will go up to eleven or twelve depending on what happens in District 20. Let’s be clear. We do not intend to imply that these appointed lawmakers are bad elected officials. In fact, some of them have turned out to be excellent. But when voters don’t get to pick more than one third of the people who represent them, something has gone badly wrong.
Gerrymandering is often criticized because it allows politicians to pick their voters. Legislative appointments might be even worse because they allow politicians to pick other politicians. And the power structures of both parties endorse this even though gigantic majorities of their rank-and-file oppose it. The survival of special elections after all these years prompts us to ask a question of all state policy-makers.
What’s more important? The prerogatives of party officials? Or the rights of the voters?