January 24, 2023
Last year, District 18 voters were denied a contested House of Delegates primary. This was one of the strangest and most unfortunate electoral events in county history. Senator Cheryl Kagan has not forgotten it and has introduced legislation to prevent such a thing from ever happening again.
The incident to which I refer began when District 18 Delegate Al Carr withdrew his delegate candidacy to switch to a county council race minutes before the candidate filing deadline. Carr, like anyone else, is free to run in any race he wishes. But at the time of his withdrawal, only two Democrats – the other incumbents – and one Republican had filed for three delegate seats in District 18.
When a ballot has an empty slot, a party’s central committee is empowered to fill it by state law. That’s right – voters have no role as they would in a contested primary. If Carr had switched his candidacy a day or two before the filing deadline, several Democrats would have filed to run. (District 18 has no shortage of aspiring officeholders.) But Carr’s switch with minutes to go robbed voters of a contested primary and transferred nominating responsibility to party officials. That triggered a process similar to the one used by central committees to fill state legislative vacancies. The difference is that the central committee had just days to fill the ballot rather than the weeks it often takes to fill vacancies.
No one should be surprised at what happened next – the central committee picked one of its own members to fill the empty ballot slot. That came despite the fact that two other candidates seeking the ballot had run for delegate four years before: Leslie Milano, who finished fourth with 6,510 votes and Joel Rubin, who finished fifth with 5,150 votes. Both candidates had continued to serve the community – Milano as president of the Women’s Democratic Club and Rubin as a member of the Town of Chevy Chase’s Town Council. The voters were shut out of the process by Carr’s last-minute switch, but picking either Milano or Rubin would at least have demonstrated respect for the thousands of rank-and-file District 18 Democrats who supported them.
I live in District 18. When I emailed the 25 central committee members with this opinion at the time, only one bothered to acknowledge me. So much for voter input, especially when it interferes with the long tradition of central committee members sending themselves to Annapolis.
Senator Cheryl Kagan, who has legislated on election issues for many years, has introduced a bill to fix this rare but wholly unacceptable problem. Her bill would extend the filing deadline by 7 days if one of two things occurs in the 48 hours before the deadline:
1. An unopposed candidate dies, is disqualified or withdraws.
2. The number of candidates from a political party is less than the number of nominations allowed for the office. For example, if only two people are running as Democrats for three delegate positions, the deadline would be extended.
If Kagan’s bill had been in effect last year, District 18 voters would have been guaranteed a contested House primary. After all, two candidates were scrambling to file as the clock ticked down to zero. The resulting primary might have even looked like 2018, which had a deep field of qualified candidates.
Last minute ballot vacancies are rare compared to the parade of General Assembly vacancies currently marching through our Democratic central committee. Nevertheless, Kagan’s bill takes an approach that should be used whenever possible: voters, not party officials, should pick their leaders.