The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Maryland needs special elections to fill state legislative vacancies

Members of the Maryland House of Delegates take photographs on May 1 of the final vote for Maryland House speaker, in which Del. Adrienne Jones (D-Baltimore City) was chosen. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

Amy B. Frieder was a candidate for the Maryland House of Delegates during the 2018 election cycle and during a vacancy-filling appointment process in 2021.

Maryland is one of several states without special elections for filling state legislative vacancies. It instead relies on political party insiders to nominate a candidate for the governor to appoint (i.e., rubber-stamp). In fact, Maryland is the only state with four-year State House terms other than North Dakota that relies on this political party insider appointment process.

These political party insiders are organized in “central committees.” Over the past several years, they have quietly wielded so much power that more than 20 percent of Maryland state legislators were initially appointed rather than elected by the voters and have benefited from incumbency advantage ever since. Can you imagine the public pushback if 20 percent of our U.S. House of Representatives were appointed rather than elected?

These vacancies are often filled by the insiders themselves. It happened Tuesday when the Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee nominated its chair to fill a House of Delegates vacancy in a fall season full of similar situations. Two months ago, the chair of the Prince George’s County Democratic Central Committee was nominated by that central committee to a vacancy without much contention. That central committee has anointed people to fill three state legislative vacancies in recent weeks — and how many voters noticed? Perhaps most egregious of recent cases was last year, when the chair of a Baltimore district’s seven-person Democratic Central Committee broke a tie by voting for herself to fill a House of Delegates vacancy — and defeating the runner-up candidate from the most recent House of Delegates election who had actually bothered to campaign for that seat and earn voter support for it.

When members of Democratic Central Committees — quite a few of whom either ran for their position unopposed or were appointed themselves, at least in Montgomery County — choose their chair to fill a vacancy over the person whom the voters literally determined to be the next best choice, it’s no question “whether the process does enough to consider voters’ voices,” as the Baltimore Sun put it. The process as it stands empowers central committee insiders with choices that voters should make — choices that voters make in many other states. “The central committee does hold all the power,” Joanne Antoine, the executive director of Common Cause Maryland, has said. Common Cause Maryland is just one Maryland organization that supports reform.

One potential reform introduced in both the House of Delegates and Senate in recent years proposed an amendment to the Maryland Constitution that would require special elections for filling state legislative vacancies occurring within the first two years of the vacating legislators’ term. These special elections would be held at the same time as regular statewide elections and would therefore have no fiscal impact to the state. Until then and after then, however, central committees would still nominate candidates to fill vacancies. As a result, this proposal has been criticized as a “red herring” measure designed to confuse voters and allow lawmakers to claim that they “solved the problem.” A proposal that would discontinue the appointment system and call for all-mail special elections, for example, could address both the above criticism and concerns about cost.

Until support for special election legislation incorporating meaningful reform grows in the General Assembly, local central committees — including those that purportedly endorse such legislation — will continue to jump at the chance to install their own insiders.