Delegates Want Voters to Fill Vacancies in Legislature, But GOP Wants to Keep Party Role

By Len Lazarick,

ANNAPOLIS (Jan. 30, 2015)—Two freshman delegates from each party are working on legislation to give voters a greater role in filling legislative seats that become vacant.

At the same time, Republican Party officials are working on ways to establish statewide party rules that will maintain the strong role of party central committees in the process and avoid the special elections the delegates are proposing.

The issue is a hot one in Annapolis as three counties must fill seats held by senators and a delegate who have now become part of the Hogan administration.

The Maryland Constitution gives the local party committees a key role in selecting a replacement for senators and delegates from their own party. But it does not specify a process for how they select a name to send to the governor, who makes the final appointment.

The Republican Central Committees in Carroll, Frederick and Washington counties all used different methods to select replacements for Sen. Joe Getty, Del. Kelly Schulz and Sen. Chris Shank. Carroll had the most secretive process, voting in closed meetings on names of applicants the committee would not reveal.

The appointments will fill out the full four-year term of those elected to the position.

Progressive Democrat, libertarian Republican

Del. David Moon, a progressive Democrat from Montgomery, and Del. Christian Miele, a libertarian Republican from Baltimore County, are coordinating with each other to introduce constitutional amendments offering different approaches to the selection process. They plan on co-sponsoring each others bills.

Miele’s bill, still in the drafting stages, takes the more radical and costly approach. It would require an immediate special election to fill any vacancy in the Maryland General Assembly.

“It puts power back in the people’s hands,” Miele said, while admitting “it’s so expensive to have a special election.”

“People vote for candidates, they don’t vote for political parties,” said Miele.

He was elected from District 8, an unusual three-member district represented by two Republican delegates and a Democrat. He notes that in last year’s six-way race for the three seats, a Democrat came in fourth, and asks why it would have to be a Republican to fill a seat if he or fellow Republican Del. John Cluster needed to be replaced.

He believes the voters should decide.

“I was thinking this was a good government bill,” Miele said.

Looking for palatable solution

Moon figures that is too drastic a change for most legislators to swallow.

“I’m trying to get something that’s palatable to people,” Moon said.

His constitutional amendment would allow counties to choose if they want to have special elections for vacancies, but they would only be held in presidential election years as part of the regular voting process. The central committees would continue to nominate candidates to fill the seats, but anyone appointed in the first two years of a four-year term would have to run for the seat.

Special elections in Maryland are rare. The county charters in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties do call for special elections to fill vacancies on their county councils.

The U.S. Constitution requires special elections for vacancies in the U.S. House of Representatives, but not for the Senate, where the states have set up varying rules.

In his bill, “You don’t strip all the central committee powers away,” Moon said. “I tried to eliminate a fiscal note,” the analysis that estimates how much a piece of legislation would cost.

Moon said he is currently getting co-sponsors for his approach, and expects Sen. Brian Feldman, another Montgomery County Democrat, to cross file the same legislation in the Senate. Feldman, a former delegate, was initially appointed to the Senate seat in the current central committee process.

Both constitutional amendments would have to be approved by voters in next year’s election.

Republicans want to maintain committee power

Diana Waterman, chair of the Maryland Republican Party, wants to maintain the powerful role of the local central committees of both parties, whose members are chosen in party primaries. Waterman has drafted recommended guidelines that would go into the party bylaws. She wants to see a more open and orderly process for the filling of vacancies followed throughout the state.

Waterman said the proposal still needs some changes before she shares them with her executive committee.

“We are in discussions with the [Hogan] administration, so it’s not counterproductive with what they want,” Waterman said.

Her proposed rules could not be adopted until the next statewide Republican convention in April.

“I’m sure it will be highly debated and discussed,” she said.

“We’re opposed to the idea of special elections for a variety of reasons,” including costs.

“We can fix the problems that have existed … We are aware of inconsistencies” in how different central committees handle vacancies, Waterman said.

Other than helping the party raise money and helping Republicans get elected in the first place, filling vacancies in public offices is one of the only official responsibilities of the central committees and they don’t want to lose that authority.

Waterman said she regrets that the party did not act to make the process more uniform after the problems in filling the Senate seat in District 36 on the Upper Shore, in which central committees from four different counties had a role.

Appointments may come next week

Shareese Churchill of Gov. Hogan’s press office said the governor’s appointments office has been interviewing the nominees for the three open seats. Hogan will make the appointments after he gets the recommendations from his staff.

Article III, Sec. 1 of the Maryland Constitution states, “the Governor shall appoint a person to fill such vacancy from a person whose name shall be submitted to him in writing” by the central committee or committees, in the case of multi-county districts.

Hogan said he wanted three names for each seat to choose from.

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