With a little more than two weeks left in the 2015 session of the General Assembly, a couple of election-related bills—intended to give voters the opportunity to participate in special elections when mid-term vacancies unexpectedly occur in state legislative and school board seats—have hit roadblocks.
Advocates of the proposed changes point out that 85 percent of Montgomery County voters approved a ballot question last fall authorizing a special election if the county executive’s post becomes empty; they also note that special election provisions already are in place if a County Council seat opens up in the first three years of a statutory four-year term. But a bill to extend the same procedures to unanticipated openings on the Board of Education appears to have run into major differences between the county’s House and Senate delegations in Annapolis.
The school board special election legislation, which would apply only to Montgomery County, cleared the House last week on a 140-0 vote, with all 24 members of the county House delegation voting in favor and its chief sponsor, Del. Al Carr, D-Kensington, saying he was “very optimistic of its chances” for enactment. But the Senate delegation’s chair, Sen. Nancy King, D-Montgomery Village, threw cold water on prospects for passage in that chamber, following a hearing on the matter this week before the county’s eight-member delegation.
”I just don’t think that bill is going to go anywhere,” King, a former county school board member, said Thursday in an interview. “I don’t see support for it in our [Senate] delegation.”
Citing concerns about both the cost and mail ballot format of the proposed special election process for school board seats, King said the legislation “has got way too many problems.”
Meanwhile, a related proposal—to give counties an opt-in to hold special elections for vacant House of Delegate and Senate seats in the first year of a four-year term—“is probably not moving this year,” Del. David Moon, D-Silver Spring, one of its sponsors, acknowledged. Even though a majority of the county’s legislative delegation supported his bill and companion legislation by Sen. Brian Feldman, D-Potomac, Moon said the measure had been stymied by opposition from the state’s two major political parties, which currently control the appointment process for filling General Assembly vacancies.
Amid the push to give voters a greater say in choosing occupants of school board and state legislative seats, yet another elections-related bill—intended to shield Circuit Court judge candidates from the pressures of partisan contests—was abruptly pulled from the General Assembly calendar earlier this month at the request of newly elected Gov. Larry Hogan. But Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert County, is vowing the proposal will be brought up again next year, in time to place a constitutional amendment needed to change the current system on the 2016 ballot.
Although the legislation would apply statewide, it follows a nasty Circuit Court judgeship election in Montgomery County last fall that roiled both the local political and legal community—as the personal problems of a sitting judge were put on public view, and a non-incumbent candidate was accused of trying to circumvent the process for vetting judicial applicants.
Until Miller agreed to the governor’s request for a delay, the legislation to do away with Circuit Court elections had appeared poised to move in the Senate. A majority of that chamber–including all members of the Montgomery County delegation—had signed on to the proposal switching to a system in which Circuit Court judges would serve 10-year terms subject to appointment by the governor and confirmation by the Senate.
Under current law, the governor fills Circuit Court vacancies from a list of candidates vetted by screening panels consisting of attorneys and rank-and-file citizens. But the appointed judges then must run in party primaries and, if successful, appear on the ballot in the next general election.
“We don’t want our judges being exposed to those kind of political races,” said Del. Ben Kramer, D-Silver Spring. “Is the election based on name familiarity? Is it based on party affiliation? Is it based on the ability to fundraise? …I think we’ve gotten to a point where we don’t want our judges sitting on the bench based on those criteria.” Kramer authored related legislation that would have made Circuit Court judges subject to the same non-partisan, yes-or-no “retention” votes that state appellate judges now face every 15 years.
Currently, unexpired terms for state legislators are filled by the governor on the recommendation of the county central committee of the political party of the departing legislator; appointments for school board vacancies are made by a vote of the remaining board members. At times, this has resulted in situations—particularly for General Assembly openings—in which an appointee has served for nearly a full four-year term without first facing the electorate. Since 2007, more than 20 percent of the seats in Montgomery County’s 32-member state legislative delegation have come open between regularly scheduled elections.
Moon described his and Feldman’s legislation as a “very, very narrow bill” merely requiring those appointed to General Assembly seats in the first year of a four-year term run to run in the next scheduled general election. For example, if a vacancy occurred this year, the person appointed to the seat would have to appear on the 2016 primary and general election ballots to stand for the remaining two years of the term, rather than waiting for the end of the legislative term in 2018.
Because Hogan, in filling his new administration, created a half-dozen state legislative vacancies in January, Moon said there were a number of Republicans in the General Assembly as well who wanted to see the current system changed.
“What is the argument for someone serving for four years unelected by the voters when we’re already paying for an election?” Moon asked. But “the Republican and Democratic parties in Maryland both came out against the bill under the argument that any change to the appointment process was a diminishing of their powers,” he added. “As a matter of fact, the bill retains their appointment powers—it just limited the term of office for a first-year appointee.”
By requiring any special election for the General Assembly to be held concurrent with the next general election, the proposal sought to neutralize arguments from critics who cite the cost of freestanding special elections.
A fiscal analysis accompanying Carr’s bill on filling school board vacancies estimates it could cost the county “at least” $800,000 to hold a special election separate from a previously scheduled general election. “I was told by the Montgomery County Board of Election that it is cheaper to run a by-mail special election, even including return postage, than it is to run a conventional election,” Carr said.
But Board of Election spokeswoman Marjorie Roher said estimates for conducting a countywide election by mail run to $1.3 million, $500,000 more than in the analysis accompanying Carr’s bill. She said estimates for a countywide special election in polling places stands at about $1.1 million, but cautioned this is a “very rough” guess pending a statewide move to a paper-based voting system next year. School board seats, whether district or at-large slots, are subject to election by the county’s full electorate of 355,000 voters.
Carr, who first came to the General Assembly by appointment in 2007 and served for three years before having to run for the office, observed, “I’m probably the perfect sponsor for a bill like this.” He said he was prompted to introduce the school board bill by last fall’s report of the County Council’s voting rights task force. “While it did not specifically address the Board of Education, the report did call for fewer appointments and more special elections,” he noted.
But King, who also gained her Senate seat through a 2007 appointment three years prior to the next election (she was previously elected twice to the House of Delegates) expressed concern that participation in a by-mail special election would be heavily influenced by organized interest groups.
“It could skewer an election so easily,” she contended.