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by Fern Shen11:06 amMar 27, 20240

Bill to give Maryland voters more say in filling legislative vacancies is bottled up in the House

Critics who call the current system undemocratic say this could be the year to wrest control from party central committees – if only House legislative leaders relent

Above: Republican William Wivell and Democrat Nick Mosby both won seats in Annapolis via party central committees. Wivell remains a Western Maryland District 2A delegate. Mosby is Baltimore City Council President. (Wikipedia)

For years, Maryland’s system for filling legislative vacancies – via party insiders rather than special elections – has made for embarrassing headlines, many of them emanating from Baltimore.

A sampling:

• In 2020, Chanel Branch got a seat in the Maryland House of Delegates on a 3-2 vote of the 45th District Central Committee at which Branch herself, as a committee member, cast the deciding vote.

• In 2017, unsuccessful Baltimore mayoral candidate Nick Mosby became a state delegate after a similarly close “election” – a 4-3 vote held by the 40th District Democratic Central Committee. (The vote was called hastily after the committee’s previous pick, Gary Brown Jr., an aide to then-Mayor Catherine Pugh, was indicted on campaign finance charges.)

• In 2018, party officials cringed over the possibility that ex-state senator Nathaniel T. Oaks, who had just pleaded guilty to corruption charges, might show up at the 41st District Central Committee meeting and vote for who would replace him. (Oaks proved to be a no-show, sparing insiders an awkward scene, but as a committee member would have been within his rights to participate.)

For years, government watchdog groups have pushed for change and reform bills have come and gone, but the system remains in place – roughly 25% of the legislature’s 188 members were appointed initially to their seats rather than being elected by the voters.

“The system has turned our whole politics into machine politics instead of grassroots politics,” said Emily Scarr, state director of the public interest group Maryland PIRG, which has advocated for change along with Common Cause Maryland.

Both political parties are loading Maryland’s legislature with insiders, but we can stop them [OP-ED] (1/7/21)

This year in Annapolis, Scarr says, the latest attempt to wrest the process away from party apparatchiks and return it to the people has made surprising headway.

A poll released by Common Cause ahead of the session showed that 85% of Maryland residents favor special elections. And Senate President Bill Ferguson said at the start of the session that he favors reforming the system.

Now, by a bipartisan 43-2 vote, the Maryland Senate has approved a compromise measure that would give voters more of a say in who represents them.

“It’s really incumbent on House Speaker Jones and the party leadership to finally let this happen”  – Emily Scarr, Maryland PIRG.

Under the bill, voters would get to decide in a special election whether people who are appointed to the legislature in the first two years of a term get to keep their seats or must stand for election in the second year when the U.S. presidential election is held.

“It saves money,” Montgomery County Democrat Cheryl Kagan said on the Senate floor, noting that the approach addresses one of the main critiques of the reform efforts – the cost of holding special elections.

Local jurisdictions “can just do an add-on and make sure that there’s democracy, and the voters will get to have their voice,” said Kagan, who could not find support for a bill that would have required special elections in the first three years of a four-year term.

Roadblock in the House

But the compromise legislation has hit a roadblock in the House in the form of Montgomery County Delegate Jheanelle K. Wilkins (D-20th), who chairs the Ways and Means election law subcommittee.

Wilkins, who herself was originally appointed to her seat, did not respond to The Brew’s query seeking comment and asking if she intends to bring the measure to a vote by the subcommittee.

“The votes are there, the support is there, nobody objects to this bill, so why won’t they move it?” Scarr said. “It’s really incumbent on House Speaker [Adrienne A.] Jones and the party leadership to finally let this happen.”

The issue has become especially glaring in Montgomery County where, as a result of departures to join the administration of Gov. Wes Moore, nearly half of the state lawmakers were not originally elected to their seats.

Defenders of the party committee method of filling vacancies argue that it has helped to increase diversity in the General Assembly.

Among the Black lawmakers who were originally appointed to their current seats are House Speaker Jones (D-Baltimore County), House Majority Whip Jazz Lewis (D-Prince George’s), and Senate Judicial Proceedings Chairman William C. Smith Jr. (D-Montgomery).

Common Cause Maryland and Maryland PIRG acknowledge the diversity angle, but say voters should be entrusted to make those choices. They note that about half the states in the country hold special elections.

Speaking in favor of the measure during a recent House Ways and Means Committee hearing, the executive director of the Maryland League of Women Voters, Nikki Tyree, noted that her organization has supported moving to special elections to fill vacancies for a long time – nearly four decades.

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