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Maryland Senate votes for special elections to fill legislative vacancies

Maryland voters would decide in a special election whether people who are appointed to vacancies in the state legislature keep their seats in the first two years of a term, under a proposed constitutional amendment approved by the state Senate on Tuesday.

The measure, which passed on a 43-2 vote, now goes to the Maryland House. If the House approves, it will go on the ballot for voters to have the final say in November.

Maryland lawmakers have been weighing changes to how vacancies are filled in the General Assembly, because roughly 25% of its 188 members were initially appointed to their seats, instead of being elected by the voters.

Currently, local political central committees choose someone to fill vacancies when a lawmaker leaves office. That name is sent to the governor, who then formalizes the selection with an appointment.

In the current process, it's possible for someone to be appointed early in a term and go on to serve more then three years as a state legislator without ever being elected by voters. That long duration has been highlighted this term after Gov. Wes Moore tapped recently re-elected legislators to serve in his administration or in other posts in state government.

Government watchdog groups have been urging lawmakers to change the procedure to give voters a voice on filling vacancies, especially when a legislator departs early in a new term.

The basic idea under the proposed change is for someone appointed in the first half of the legislature's four-year term to face voters in a special election that would take place in the term's second year, when the U.S. presidential election already is held.

However, it's possible someone could be appointed to his or her seat too late in the second year of the term for a special election to be held. Under the proposed change, if a vacancy happens on or before the date that is 55 days from the state's candidate filing deadline in the term's first two years, the governor would call for a special primary election and a special general election to coincide with the regular elections that take place in the second year of a term.

"This is a special election that basically is concurrent with the presidential election, but it saves our counties money because they don't have to run special elections," Sen. Cheryl Kagan, a Montgomery County Democrat, recently said when the bill came to the Senate floor. "They can just do an add-on and make sure that there's democracy, and the voters will get to have their voice."

Someone appointed to the legislature in the third or fourth year of the term would face the voters in regularly scheduled elections for state lawmakers.

If the constitutional amendment is approved, the change would not apply until the next term.

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