Two years ago, in a heartfelt conversation with my father in his final days, we talked about his lifelong commitment to democracy, and he voiced his dismay about what he believed is the undemocratic nature of Maryland’s appointment process. My dad, Ezekiel (Zeke) Smith, said, “Things have changed for the best in Virginia but not Maryland. Those people in Maryland are stealing the vote from the people, and you can’t allow people to steal your vote.” He told me to fight like hell.

Here’s what my father was thinking on his deathbed. When a Maryland state legislator leaves office early, members of their political party select a replacement instead of turning directly to voters to fill the seat with a special election. That’s not the case in Virginia, and Maryland is one of only two states with four-year legislative terms that use the appointment process to fill vacancies.

Appointments are far from unusual in Maryland. More than 20% of Maryland state legislators were initially appointed instead of elected to office. It’s undemocratic and it made my father’s blood boil, even to the end.

To understand the significance of this issue, we must trace the legacy of voter suppression that has long plagued my family and our nation.

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My great-grandfather, Noah Green Smith Sr., who had been enslaved, was only granted the right to vote with the enactment of the 15th Amendment in 1870. My father and grandfather still faced immense challenges to vote due to intimidation tactics and Jim Crow laws. Even after the enactment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, my father encountered barriers such as poll taxes and literacy tests, hindering his ability to exercise his democratic rights.

As a sharecropper and victim of voter suppression throughout his life, it took determination and resilience for him to be able to cast a ballot.

Noah Green Smith Sr. (left) and his wife, Laura Ann Hatch Smith. (Liza Smith)

Recognizing the importance of voting from his own challenges, he implored me to fight for a fair and inclusive electoral system. His words are spurring me to highlight the need for reform and advocate for change to Maryland’s appointment process.

Maryland’s current process grants an alarming amount of unchecked power to political parties. It felt all too familiar to my father as a process that stops everyday people from participating in democracy in the most fundamental way: their right to vote.

Sharing his concerns, and wanting to honor my family’s legacy and struggles, I ran and won an election for a seat on the Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee to try to reform the process. Party Central Committee members are elected every four years on the same ballot that elects the governor, attorney general, comptroller and members of the Maryland General Assembly.

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As a member of the Central Committee, I have witnessed firsthand the intimidating atmosphere, opaque dealings, and repercussions faced by those who do not fall in line with the favored choice for a prized appointment.

This environment stifles debate. It discourages dissenting voices and ultimately hurts our democracy. In our democracy, voters should decide who represents them.

Two different approaches to addressing the vacancies issue are being considered during the 2024 session of the Maryland General Assembly. A proposal by Sen. Cheryl Kagan, whose district includes Rockville and Gaithersburg, calls for vote-by-mail elections in the case of a vacancy. Del Linda Foley, also of Montgomery County, who was selected to represent District 15 last spring, has introduced a proposal to hold elections for empty seats during federal elections, which land in the middle of the four-year state legislative term.

Either option gives life to the foundational American principle of one person, one vote. Another proposal would refine the appointment process without enabling special elections. This simply isn’t enough.

I’ve heard every possible excuse about why Maryland legislators can’t change the law to let people vote: It’s too expensive; not enough people will show up; and it won’t help us build diversity among our elected representatives.

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Democracy requires active participation, and denying constituents the right to directly choose their representatives perpetuates a system where power is concentrated in the hands of a select few. Elections are messy, and our democracy is imperfect. But that doesn’t mean denying the right to vote in the circumstance of a vacancy.

By denying Marylanders the right to elect their representatives through special elections, we continue to undermine the values our democracy holds dear. Let us honor the memory of those, like my father and his father before him, who fought tirelessly for the right to vote by demanding a more transparent, inclusive and democratic process.

Twenty-eight states have figured out how to run special elections to fill legislative vacancies, and our leaders in Annapolis can, too. The time for change in Maryland is now.

Liza Smith is an elected member of the Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee representing District 14, a community advocate and a union member.

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