Organizations, senator chide MD House for opposing special elections

April 16, 2024

The Daily Record

Pro-democracy organization leaders on Tuesday said the Maryland House of Delegates failed voters by again
declining to vote for special elections to fill legislative vacancies.
The state Senate voted overwhelmingly for Maryland to hold special elections concurrently with statewide primary
and general elections during presidential election years — which are off-years for Maryland state races — and the bill’s
sponsor said she thought a compromise had been reached with House leaders.
The Senate has voted multiple times in recent years to require special elections to fill open seats, but the proposal
hasn’t made it through the House.
“We’re extremely disappointed that the House let voters down yet again,” Joanne Antoine, executive director of
Common Cause Maryland, said in a statement Tuesday. “Their inaction means the average voter will continue to have no
say in the process for at least the next four years.”
Had lawmakers passed the bill, it would have required approval from voters in a statewide ballot question before
taking effect, and the soonest possible special election would’ve been 2028.
Emily Scarr, director of Maryland PIRG — part of a network of state-based, citizen-funded Public Interest Research
Groups — echoed Antoine, saying that while Maryland is a national leader in ballot access policies, “it’s time to democratize the process to fill vacancies.”
State Sen. Cheryl Kagan, who sponsored the bill, said it was her understanding that House leaders had agreed to a
“watered-down version” that required a special election in fewer instances than what she initially proposed.
“It was disappointing, when I thought there was an understanding of a reasonable middle solution, a more moderate
solution,” Kagan, a Montgomery County Democrat, said in a phone interview Tuesday.
House Ways and Means Chair Vanessa Atterbeary said in March, after the Senate passed the bill, that her committee
“wasn’t keen on it,” and members eventually opted not to forward the proposal to a vote of the full House.
Atterbeary couldn’t immediately be reached for comment by phone call or text message Tuesday, and a
spokesperson for House Speaker Adrienne Jones declined to comment.
Proponents of special elections have contended that the state’s existing process — in which locally elected party
central committees recommend a replacement, subject to the governor’s approval, to finish out the four-year term — grants preference to party leaders over voters and gives appointees an unfair advantage for name recognition and campaign fundraising when they enter election cycles as incumbents.
Central committees would still recommend replacements for the governor’s approval, and incumbents would still
have an upper hand, but special elections during presidential cycles would provide voters a say every two years, rather than every four.
Roughly one in four current state lawmakers was first appointed to the legislature, rather than elected.
“The numbers have just been extraordinary,” Kagan said. “It happened during the Hogan administration, when he
cherry-picked a number of legislators for his Cabinet and senior staff, and it’s happened even more with the Moore-Miller
administration taking some of the very best and brightest out of the General Assembly to put in leadership positions.”
Most recently, Sen. Ariana Kelly announced in March that — after more than a decade in the House of Delegates
and little more than a year in the Senate — she would be leaving her seat representing Montgomery County to lead the
Maryland Commission for Women, part of Gov. Wes Moore’s administration.
Kelly’s pending departure will likely open the door for a new member of the House of Delegates, as she and other
Montgomery County lawmakers have thrown their support behind second-term Del. Sara Love to fill the seat.
If the county’s Democratic central committee nominates Love and Moore confirms her, one of three House seats
representing District 16 will be vacant, paving the way for another politician to enter the legislature via appointment.
Kagan said Tuesday that it’s premature to say whether she’ll push again next year to require special elections.
“This is a common-sense transparency and democracy bill, and it should not have stalled in the House, in the Ways
and Means Committee,” Kagan said. “I am hopeful that we can make progress on this version or on something similar in
the future.”