The national elections are now history. With Jamie Raskin moving to Congress to represent Maryland’s 8th District in the House, a few people in Montgomery County will have the power to select Raskin’s replacement in the Maryland State Senate and possibly a subsequent replacement in the House of Delegates.
The process to fill vacancies in Maryland’s General Assembly is expeditious and often ends with the selection of highly qualified and competent appointees, but it should be more democratic.
The group charged with picking individuals to put in Annapolis is the 28-member Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee. Under the Maryland Constitution, when a vacancy in the legislature occurs, the county central committee of the party that holds the office recommends a candidate or candidates to the governor, who then formally makes the appointment.
Other methods to fill vacant state legislative seats include special elections and gubernatorial or party appointments. Twenty-six states have special elections to fill vacancies. A dozen authorize the governor to make the appointment, usually based on the recommendation of the party that holds the vacant seat. Eleven allow the party that holds the vacant seat to make the appointment. In New Jersey, vacancies during the legislative session are filled by special election, while the incumbent party fills those occurring out of session.
A number of well-qualified people have expressed interest in being considered for Raskin’s Senate seat and for a House seat, if Raskin’s replacement is a sitting delegate.
Whoever is appointed will have to persuade a majority of the democratic central committee to vote for him or her. However, only three of the 28 MCDCC members are from District 20, the legislative district in question. Community activists point out that the current process favors those with strong ties to the MCDCC and makes it more difficult for those with a strong history of civic involvement and community engagement in the district but fewer ties to the MCDCC to be appointed.
What can be done to make the process more democratic? On the face of it, calling for a special election would be the most democratic. But this would require a change to the state’s constitution, something that is not easy to do. Single-seat elections are expensive. Turnout in the states that hold these special elections tends to be below 10 percent — favoring those who are already in power and able to raise money quickly.
Absent direct elections, the party could take several steps to improve the process. The committee could host candidate meetings with the public, with mandatory attendance for MCDCC members. The committee could give precinct officials more say in the selection process, perhaps even a vote. If the appointed term is for more than two years, the appointment could be limited to finishing the term and a new election for the seat held at the next general election.
Because of procedural and legal obstacles, substantial changes in the process will take time and will not occur before the current vacancy is filled. However, concerns from active and engaged community members need to be addressed.
No process is perfect, but ensuring that the Democratic Party is not viewed by its members as insular is important to its long-term strength. Greater involvement by the community in the appointment process will benefit everyone.
The writer is treasurer of the Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee. The opinions expressed here are his own.