At the federal convention in 1787, the Philadelphia gathering that produced the U.S. Constitution, our Founders held varying ideas regarding the ideal term for members of the U.S. House of Representatives. Some argued for annual elections, others for two-year terms. A handful supported a once-every-three-years approach. In the end, it was agreed that it was best to let voters exercise their franchise for this office — the branch of the legislature, after all, that was meant to be most responsive to the people — every two years.
Meanwhile, in Maryland, voters cast ballots for the analogous state body — the House of Delegates — every four years. The state is one of just five with four-year terms for the lower body of a bicameral legislature (Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and North Dakota are the others). But this relative infrequency of suffrage is particularly disturbing in Maryland.
The state’s system has a number of other attributes that run counter to small-d democratic practice. Maryland has no recall mechanism for removing wayward legislators from office. The proliferation of multi-member legislative districts means some delegates represent more than 120,000 constituents. And, as opponents of gay marriage recently discovered, a limited initiative and referendum provision keeps advocates from taking the initiative on a given cause; referenda are limited to up-or-down votes on laws that have been passed by the General Assembly.
That’s why creating greater accountability in the House of Delegates by requiring members to face voters every two years is so badly needed. This single reform would go a long way toward strengthening the connections between the policymakers and the people of Maryland.
One common counterargument to taking this step is that delegates need four years to gain the requisite understanding of government. But what about all the states with two-year terms? If their representatives can learn their jobs in two years, Maryland delegates can do likewise. And if they can’t, maybe it’s not such a bad idea to give voters a chance to elect someone else.
I have also heard it argued that delegates make up for long terms by taking part in frequent community forums, which promote accountability. But a forum is nothing compared to an election. Only the vote, the constitutionally protected and regularly exercised ability by the electorate to retain or remove an officeholder, has the power to guarantee that a delegate will not stray too far from the interests of his or her constituents.
There are also those who believe such a change would be radical, but it’s really rather conservative. Until 1922, Maryland’s House of Delegates had two-year terms. Before 1845, the terms were a year. Surely the voters of Maryland should have the chance to vote for their delegate as often as they do for their member of Congress.
Such a change would need to take the form of a constitutional amendment. As such, short of a state constitutional convention, it can be placed on the ballot only by the General Assembly itself — hardly a disinterested body, I know. But I think if they looked at it fairly, state legislators would come to the conclusion that, at the very least, the people should have the final say. And I think our Founders would agree.
The writer is a pollster and strategic communications consultant based in Columbia.