During the General Election, many Marylanders – consumed with the selection of the state’s next governor – ignored the first statewide ballot question that gave voters the option to rewrite the Maryland constitution. Although the majority of the electorate said yes to a Maryland Constitutional Convention—about 142,000 more than those that said no—more than 164, 000 voters chose to abstain, which counted as votes against the measure, according to preliminary Board of Election data.

Raquel Guillory, spokeswoman for the state’s attorney general, said the bulk of all voters at the polls had to be in favor of the measure for it to pass, not just the majority of those that voted on the question. She added that the General Assembly will make the final call on whether a convention should be held during the next session in January.

Political strategist Hassan Giordano, who is in favor of a convention, said lawmakers should revisit the rule requiring an “absolute” majority, calling it “absolutely ridiculous.”

“If it went off just the simple majority, we would be having a convention,” he said. “Now we have to wait another 20 years and that is a political lifetime.”

State law mandates that citizens vote on a Maryland Constitutional Convention every two decades. If passed, the event allows Marylanders to elect four representatives from each of the state’s 47 legislative districts to assess the need for changes to the 143-year-old Maryland Constitution during an event in Annapolis. The public then votes on the proposed amendments in a separate special election.

Marylanders have yet to garner a majority vote for a constitutional convention since the option became law over a century ago. There were close calls in 1930 and 1950, Guillory said. In both instances, more people voted in favor of a convention than against it, but the measure still did not gain the majority of all voters.

The five constitutional conventions that were held throughout Maryland’s history were all issued by governors. The last was in 1967 at the behest of Gov. J. Millard Tawes following a Supreme Court ruling that prompted Maryland lawmakers to reevaluate the state’s legislative districts. Voters later rejected the proposed amendments at the polls.

Maryland was one of four states to pose the constitutional convention option to residents this year; the others were Montana, Iowa and Michigan.

Del. Melvin L. Stukes, a Democrat from the 44th District, said the General Assembly should not overlook the fact that at least 868,220 Marylanders support a convention. “Everything needs to be reevaluated from time to time,” he said.

Giordano concurred, “A law that was passed in 1777 may not be relevant in 1987…So, it (a constitutional convention) gives people a chance to revise the constitution if necessary.”

He and Stukes agree that voter ignorance may have led to the high number of abstentions. “What we seem to see in most elections, and this is not just in Maryland but all over, that a lot of people are not politically inclined enough and they only come out to vote for their candidates and leave,” said Giordano. “They are bombarded with questions with lots of wording and get confused.”

He also noted that the late arrival of sample ballots—which some received after early voting had already begun—may have caused voters to be less prepared.

West Baltimore resident Shawyn Jenkins, a college professor, said she voted for the convention because she thinks it would be healthy for Maryland’s democracy.

“We haven’t had one since the late ‘60s and I thought it was time to review our laws,” she said. “I agree with what, I think it was Benjamin Franklin said that ‘every generation needs to have a constitutional convention.’ We need to revisit the laws that are in the books to see if we still need them.”

The other two statewide ballot questions, which asked voters if jury trials in civil cases should be limited to disputes involving $15,000 or more and if judges of the Baltimore Orphans’ Court should be lawyers, won a majority of votes. The Orphans’ Court decision stirred conflict as Baltimore residents simultaneously voted in a non-lawyer to serve the court.

 

Shernay Williams

Special to the AFRO