In the 2024 General Assembly session, discussion is again underway on changing the roles and responsibilities of local Republican central committees and local Democratic central committees.
The primary focus of these committees has historically been on recruiting and supporting political candidates.
Under current law, local central committees also have a key role to play whenever a vacancy occurs in the General Assembly resulting from “death, disqualification, resignation, refusal to act, or expulsion of a state senator or delegate, or in the case of a senator’s or delegate’s removal from the city or county from which he or she was elected.”
When that occurs, the local central committee or central committees in the legislative district with the same party affiliation as the departed member are charged with making a recommendation to the governor on a replacement. The recommended individual must have the same party affiliation as the departed member. The governor, in turn, “must, in accordance with specified procedures, appoint a person affiliated with the same political party to serve the remainder of the vacating senator’s or delegate’s unexpired term.”
Such appointments are far more common than one might think.
Of the 188 members currently serving in the General Assembly, almost one fourth were not elected by the voters, but were appointed to fill a vacancy and complete an unexpired term.
Even more vacancy appointments may occur in 2024 if incumbent General Assembly members win bids for other offices and resign from their present office.
Reaching consensus in changes to the current vacancy process has been and is elusive. Presently, there are three proposals under active consideration, each with supporters and opponents.
One proposal would allow central committees to fill vacancies but would require public notice of vacancies and information on a central committee’s application and interview process. It would also require central committee interviews and votes to be open to the public and central committee members who apply to fill a vacancy to recuse themselves from the recommendation vote.
Another proposal would also allow central committees to continue to fill vacancies but subject their recommendations to voter ratification under certain circumstances. Recommendations made in the first two years of an unexpired term would be subject to voter approval in the next presidential election. In the second two years of the unexpired term, the appointed individual would have the option of running in the next state election.
A third proposal would replace the current appointment process with special elections. If the vacancy occurs within the first three years of a term, voters in the district would fill that vacancy through special primary and general elections. If the vacancy occurs within the fourth year, central committees would name an initial replacement who would have to run for election in the next primary election. This proposal requires an amendment to the state constitution which needs a three-fifths vote of approval in the House and the Senate then voter approval in a statewide referendum.
Concerns have been raised about this third proposal based on estimated costs incurred by local and state boards of elections to administer multiple special elections.
The General Assembly is currently discussing a proposed 63.1 billion dollar annual state budget. They are also discussing moving forward on an additional 3.8 billion dollars in new state and local funding for public education over the next ten years as mandated by the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future (the Kirwan Report).
Emily Scarr at the Maryland Public Interest Research Group recently opined that special elections are “the cost of having a democracy. People have [a right] to vote for who represents them. It’s a fundamental thing and if we’re not spending money to ensure that right, what are we doing?”
Now is the time to address the outsized role of political central committees and the governor in the process to fill vacancies in the General Assembly.
The way to do that is a new process that maximizes opportunities to let the voters decide.
David Reel is a public affairs/public relations consultant. He lives in Easton.