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Maryland election law needs a serious upgrade

There are some big things that are wrong with the way Marylanders elect candidates to office. We hand the drawing of legislative and congressional district lines to self-interested politicians who abuse the process to bolster their political parties, reward friends and punish enemies. And we have a campaign finance system that magnifies the influence of wealthy special interests. Those are foundational problems in our political system, and the possible solutions to them — redistricting reform and publicly financed campaigns — have proven to be difficult to enact.

But this year’s elections have uncovered some dumb problems that are eminently fixable.

For the last several weeks, we’ve witnessed the state’s maddening refusal to remove former state Sen. Nathaniel Oaks’ name from the June 26 primary ballot, despite his concerted efforts to drop out following his guilty plea on corruption charges. Now, following the sudden death of former Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, we’re seeing the same problem magnified to a new level of absurdity.

Maryland law does account for the possibility that a candidate for governor would die before an election, but it’s increasinly clear that nobody thought it through all that carefully. As was her right under state law, Kamenetz’s running mate, former Montgomery County Councilwoman Valerie Ervin, has chosen to run in his stead. But now state election officials say it’s not only too late to remove Mr. Kamenetz’s name from the ballot, it’s also too late to add hers. The ballots are already being printed, and some absentees have already been sent out. As of now, it’s unclear how Marylanders will be able to vote for Ms. Ervin and her running mate, former Baltimore County school board member Marisol Johnson, or what will happen to votes cast for Kamenetz.

Meanwhile, the Kamenetz campaign account of at least $2 million seems to be off limits for her. State election law may allow her to take his place on the ballot, but the only options it appears to allow for disposing of his campaign cash is for his treasurer to give it to the Democratic central committee of the county or state, or to donate it to certain kinds of charities. Ms. Ervin is left instead with whatever she has managed to raise for her own account since joining the ticket.

This turn of events has led some to ask why Maryland law requires gubernatorial candidates to name a running mate when the file. Why not leave that selection until after the primary, as presidential candidates do? Theoretically, the selection of a running mate could tell voters something about the person who is running for governor — but usually what it demonstrates is the candidate’s political calculations rather than his or her character and judgment. And the down side is that we’ve wasted a lot of political talent over the years from people who have given up their own electoral careers for a shot at being someone’s No. 2. In the last gubernatorial election, for example, then-Del. Jolene Ivey lost her seat in the House of Delegates when she ran with then-Attorney General Douglas Gansler. Then-Howard County Executive Ken Ulman gave up his own gubernatorial ambitions to serve as Anthony Brown’s running mate. And then-Del. Jeannie Haddaway gave up her seat to run with David Craig.

Meanwhile, any number of unsuccessful candidates in this or any other year might well have made great running mates (and might have helped unify their parties). Would Mr. Brown have been more successful in 2014 if after the primary he put Mr. Gansler or then-Del Heather Mizeur on his ticket? Republicans could well be looking at the same issue in 2020; at the moment, odds seem strong that at least three popular and capable GOP county executives (Anne Arundel’s Steve Schuh, Harford County’s Barry Glassman and Howard County’s Allan Kittleman) could be top contenders for governor.

Maryland should certainly change the timing of running mate selection, which would require a constitutional amendment. But that alone wouldn’t solve the problem. Maryland needs a mechanism to change the names that appear on the ballot when there is good reason to do so — as there is this year both in the case of Kevin Kamenetz’s death and Mr. Oaks’ guilty plea. It was logistically easier to do that when the state used touch-screen voting machines, but the switch to paper ballots came about because of legitimate voter security concerns that have only grown in the wake of revelations about Russian attempts to influence the 2016 election. Still, there surely must be a way to change the ballots later than the current deadline for candidates to withdraw from a race, which is just two days after the deadline to file. Lawmakers and elections officials need to work together to develop a more responsive system. Otherwise, the names voters see on their ballots won’t be the actual choices they have before them.

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