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Maryland PIRG: State Should Hold Special Elections to Fill Vacancies in the Legislature

Special Elections
Voters line up to vote in Baltimore City on Election Day 2020. File photo by Elizabeth Shwe.

By Rishi Shah

The writer is an advocate with the Maryland Public Interest Research Group, Maryland PIRG.

Our democracy works best when everyone has a voice and everyone is represented. Voting for our local, state and federal representatives is fundamental to this vision, and is step one in a civically-engaged electorate and responsive government.

But today, Maryland’s system for filling empty legislative seats is simply un-democratic.

Currently, approximately one in five Maryland state legislators were initially appointed rather than elected by the voters — appointed by a small group of political insiders to fill seats left empty by retirements, deaths or other reasons. When the next election comes around, these appointed legislators enjoy the benefit of incumbency and are generally elected to a full four-year term.

Some of these appointees have been in office a few months, others more than a decade. There is no doubt these policymakers are committed to public service and their districts. But our democracy would be stronger if we joined state legislatures across the country that hold special elections to fill vacancies. Maryland is the only state with four-year State House terms, other than North Dakota, that relies on this political party appointment process.

There are some benefits to this system. It saves money by avoiding the costs of a special election, and it has helped candidates who are disadvantaged in the traditional election system reach higher office, including women, people of color and young people. But holding special elections for vacancies is a more democratic process. Constituents, not a small committee of party insiders, should choose the people who represent them in office.

Here’s how it works currently: each legislative district has a Democratic and Republican party central committee — a small, elected body designed to support the party in the district. It’s an important tool the parties have built to develop leaders and run their campaigns. When there is a vacancy in their districts, these committee members vote for a candidate — who can be a member of the central committee itself — and the appointment is confirmed by the governor to complete the term until the next election is held.

By practice, the governor approves the candidates recommended by the central committees although they do have the discretion to reject them. While those who sit on the central committee were elected by their party, district voters have no further input in a process, and independent voters and those from the other party have no say in this process.

Sen. Clarence Lam (D-Baltimore and Howard counties) has introduced legislation to reform the current process by holding elections for vacant seats in the Maryland General Assembly during presidential election years along with the current quadrennial cycle.

As a result, appointed members to the General Assembly could not serve for three or more years without winning an election. Holding the special elections on this second cycle would reduce the financial burden of special elections and increase voter participation in special elections since they would occur during the higher profile presidential primary.

In addition, there are better tools to realize the goal of ensuring we have a representative General Assembly and a democracy where candidates from all backgrounds are able to run competitive races for office. These include public financing and ranked-choice voting, both of which would reduce barriers for seeking office in state legislative races.

Our state legislators make important decisions on education, health, the environment and how our tax dollars are spent. Twenty-eight states already have some sort of special elections process for replacing legislative vacancies.

As a national leader on democracy and ballot access, Maryland should join them. It’s time to democratize the process to fill vacancies and support policies that are proven effective in building a representative democracy.


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Maryland PIRG: State Should Hold Special Elections to Fill Vacancies in the Legislature