August 30, 2013

This legislative session, Maryland took a huge step forward in expanding ballot access through improved early voting and new opportunities for voter registration. While this progress is commendable, it won’t make a difference for residents in parts of Montgomery County and the Eastern Shore, where voters will have no say in who represents them in the Maryland Senate next spring.

When lawmakers resign, die or are removed from office between elections in Maryland, they are replaced through a process that can occur behind closed doors without public input. In what can be a confusing, arbitrary and undemocratic process, the local political party or parties, often unknown to the vast majority of voters, get to recommend candidates to the governor. The appointed candidate then has all the benefits of incumbency to help win the next election.

The problems with the appointment process have been amply highlighted this summer. Chaos erupted on the Eastern Shore when E.J. Pipkin (R) resigned from the Maryland Senate. Since the district contains all or part of Caroline, Cecil, Kent and Queen Anne’s counties, Republican central committees from each jurisdiction get a say in choosing a new legislator. According to recent reports, the central committees are divided between candidates, with no process for ending the deadlock, possibly giving Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) the final say.

In Montgomery County’s 15th District, the resignation of Sen. Robert J. Garagiola (D) opened the door to what looked like the quick ascension of a sitting delegate. But members of underrepresented groups objected, demanding the consideration of a more diverse pool of candidates. However this ends, significant groups of voters will rightly feel that they had no say in a process controlled by little-known insiders, rather than by a vote by the people.

And these are not rare cases of controversy, chaos and division. Last year, the focus was on Prince George’s County, where the local political committee and the governor sparred over the appointment of an open delegate seat. When the two open Senate seats are filled, 26 legislators will have originally gained their current seats via appointment. While these may well be outstanding individuals, taking voters out of the process for 14 percent of our legislative seats creates a turbulent appointment process and undermines accountability and confidence in our democracy.

Luckily there is a simple, effective and inexpensive solution to close this circus down. Voters should be the ones to elect candidates to open seats, and if in-person voting is too expensive, then voters should be allowed to vote by mail. While the system must be structured carefully to avoid fraud, voting by mail has been successfully tested across the nation. Establishing a process for special elections that is easy and low-cost to administer would open up the current process, strengthening democracy and accountability.

Voters should have the final decision in all elections, not just those that happen every four years.

The writers are, respectively, executive director of Common Cause Maryland and a public affairs and advocacy strategist active with the organization.