Md. Democratic Party orders Pr. George’s committee to redo its officer elections

A dispute between the Prince George’s County Democratic committee and state party leaders has triggered a broad inquiry into the way chapters across Maryland select their officers, a member of the Prince George’s committee said.

The brouhaha centers on whether the committee chair, vice chair and other officers can be elected by secret ballot — a practice long in place in Prince George’s and many other counties, according to copies of bylaws dating to the 1990s, but forbidden by Democratic National Committee rules for even longer.

“Central Committees serve in a ‘representative capacity,’ ” state party chair Yvette Lewis wrote in a letter to the Prince George’s central committee on Aug. 2. “Therefore, constituents must have access to votes cast by their elected [representatives], which requires an open vote.”

The letter said the committee’s July officer election was invalid because votes were counted in private, and it instructed the committee to redo the vote Aug. 19, with state party officials there to supervise.

Prince George’s party leaders pushed back, noting that the state party bylaws contain no explicit restriction on electing officers by secret ballot. They demanded that the state party not single out their committee — whose constitution specifically protects the secret ballot — but also review the officer-election process in all 23 counties and Baltimore City.

Lewis refused to answer questions about the standoff, saying it was an internal matter. The state party spokesman said the group’s bylaws defer to national party rules on all matters, including the requirement for an open process for officer elections.

Courtney Glass, the Prince George’s Committee member whose complaint against her committee leadership triggered the episode, said she has been told by Lewis that a county-by-county inventory is underway.

Local party committees are often the first step on the political ladder for ambitious Democrats, who help candidates running for local, state and national office; maintain voter rolls; and educate the party faithful. Members also nominate candidates for vacancies in the General Assembly.

The 24 members of the Prince George’s committee were elected in the June primary. At a public meeting July 9, each member voted for officers by writing the names of their preferred candidates on papers that were tallied up in private. There was no public record of who voted for whom.

Glass, an attorney who works for County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) in the intergovernmental affairs division, filed a complaint with state party officials. “An open meeting should have open votes,” the complaint said. “I am not aware of an election process like this taking place in any other political body.”

In an interview, Glass said the secret vote “seemed wholly undemocratic. I hope this will be the end of this for all counties across Maryland and the nation.”

Party officials in Montgomery, Howard and Charles counties say they, too, used to have secret ballots but recently opened their elections process. LaRhonda Owens, who was elected chair in Prince George’s in July, did not respond to requests for comment.

“I think you need a record of the vote, and it had concerned me in the past,” said Abby Hendrix, who was elected chair of the Howard County Democratic central committee in July in the party committee’s first-ever voice vote.

One member of the Montgomery County committee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak officially, said the group used secret ballots in the past but has outlawed them.

Virginia Benedict, chair of the Charles County central committee, said her group, too, had switched to open ballots — though she would not say when. “This is the way we do it now,” she said.

In Prince George’s, meanwhile, committee members are smarting about being scolded by state party leaders. “Many of us wonder why it wasn’t brought to us and allowed for us to handle in-house first,” District 25 representative Belinda Queen-Howard wrote in an e-mail to constituents explaining the Aug. 19 vote.

Arelis Hernández covers Prince George’s County as part of The Washington Post's local staff.
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