Thursday, December 13, 2007

Legislative Vacancies: Constitutional Reform

The deed is done, the people have spoken, and District 18 has its new delegate.

Well, the people of D-18 haven’t really spoken. It was the Central Committee who picked our delegate.

As I noted in an earlier post, only one year into the four-year term, almost 40% of Montgomery County residents now have as one of our General Assembly delegates someone who we had no role whatsoever in electing. The process for replacing legislators is seriously flawed for a number of reasons:

  • The overwhelming majority of those making the selection do not live in the district whose delegate they are choosing;

  • Citizens who are not registered to the same party as the legislator being replaced have no voice at all in electing the body that is making the selection for them;

  • Even most rank-and-file members of the party in question don’t have a clue what a party central committee does and who the candidates are when we see them on the primary ballot; and

  • Although we will be having elections throughout the state in 2008, voters with unelected legislators selected by outside party officials will be denied the opportunity to democratically elect someone to fill out the rest of the term.

This process is inconsistent with the basic principles of electoral democracy.

It is not acceptable.

It must change.

The Maryland Constitution sets out the provisions for filling a legislative vacancy, generally giving the party Central Committee the right to fill a vacancy (or at least to recommend a name to the governor). And the vacancy is filled for the rest of the term. So if we want the voice of the people to be heard through an election, we must amend the Maryland Constitution.

At Sunday’s D-18 candidate forum, several candidates, including Al Carr, expressed support for the right of the people of a district to vote on a permanent replacement legislator during the midterm elections (i.e., presidential election years). I will be strongly lobbying all of my representatives to support a constitutional amendment to make that possible. Based on his statements at the forum, I expect Del. Carr will not need any persuading on this matter.

One potential drawback: Party primaries in presidential election years occur months earlier than they do in General Assembly election years. For instance, while the 2006 primaries were in September, the 2008 primaries are in February. This would spell trouble for a temporarily-appointed legislator seeking election to his appointed position, since he would be in session in the weeks leading up to the primary, with no time to campaign and a legal prohibition against fundraising. It also would mean that a vacancy occurring as early February could not be filled by election in November because the vacancy occurred after the primaries.

For that reason, we could eliminate party primaries for special elections and instead have all interested candidates run regardless of party in one general election, with the possibility of a runoff in case no one gets a majority. Alternatively, we could have a fall primary just in the districts in question.

There may be other problems I have not thought of. As we approach the 2008 session of the General Assembly, now is the time to hash these problems out.

Unfortunately for the people of Districts 16, 18, and 39, even if a constitutional amendment passes during the upcoming legislative session and is approved by the voters in November 2008, that will be too late for us to get our 2008 midterm vote on a candidate. But amending the constitution will protect Marylanders in the future.

My next post will discuss reforms that Central Committees can adopt in the meantime to democratize the process.