Maryland lawmakers could have to live in the districts they represent under a law that will go to Maryland voters for approval next year.
The amendment to the Maryland Constitution at first blush sounds counterintuitive but in fact could clear up a point of murky, muddled election law that is an issue in almost every election for more than two decades. A bill sponsored by Sen Charles Sydnor, D-Baltimore seeks to change a two-decade old court ruling that would require state legislative candidates to live in the district in which they are running and not merely maintain an address.
“I think the most important thing that stood out to us was that folks want people representing them that are actually in their area,” said Lauren Wyatt, advocacy lead for the Baltimore-based advocacy voter mobilization group Black Girls Vote. “When you’re supporting someone who is running for election you want them to know how your street looks because they’ve been driving down them. You want them to know how your housing situation looks because they also maybe have to drive — even if they work in Columbia — they have to drive down that street and see the vacant homes on their way out of the city. They might be vegan and not have food options. They understand the need because they live in the city and not because they just moved there and saw it for a week or two.”
Sen. Charles Sydnor’s bill may be the sleeper legislation of the 2021 session. After a hearing in February the bill sat for more than two months.
“It just sat in committee,” Sydnor said.
Sydnor sponsored similar legislation a year ago that went nowhere. He said his search for co-sponsors raised a lot of eyebrows because legislators already thought it was law. The senator said he had also had trouble the last two years drumming up interest from a number of good government and fair elections groups. In the end, Black Girls Vote was the one organization that took an interest.
Suddenly the bill gained traction and steamrolled out of the Education Health and Environmental Affairs Committee and a unanimous vote on the floor of the Senate on the last day of the session.
“That was my victory — getting the (committee) vote and getting it to the Senate floor and getting it out of the Senate. That was going to be my victory because I figured it was right before Sine Die and it’s going to die over there (in the House.)
The bill didn’t die in the House and instead returned with minor amendments Sydnor could live with and the Senate accepted.
Indeed, passage in the Senate was a big step for a bill that had been considered before and blocked by some including former Sen. Nathaniel McFadden, who was accused by an opponent in the 2014 Democratic primary of living in a north Baltimore condo far outside the district he represented.
A 1998 Court of Appeals ruling made it nearly impossible to challenge residency.
“I just didn’t think that decision was fair,” said Sydnor, who was first elected in 2014.
The issue comes up frequently including the 2014 election when William Newton, a Republican candidate for one of three House of Delegate seats in the 10th Legislative District in western Baltimore County attempted to have the courts disqualify Hasan Jay Jalisi.
Jalisi filed for the race claiming his domicile — language cited by the Court of Appeals in 1998 — was a home converted into office space used as his campaign headquarters rather than a larger home in Greenspring Valley which was in the neighboring 11th District. Newton’s challenges with the Maryland State Board of Elections and in the courts was rejected.
Jalisi, who voted for Sydnor’s bill earlier this month, ultimately won that election and is in his second term.
Sydnor’s bill would change the requirement from a domicile, cited by the court in the 23-year-old case, to abode representing where someone actually lives.
“The way I’ve explained it to people is that if you’re wealthy, you can have a lot of domiciles but most of us only have one place of abode,” Sydnor said.
The issue has been a source of consternation for candidates, lawmakers and voters alike since a seminal 1998 Court of Appeals ruling in a case involving then Sen. Clarence Blount and the Del. Frank Boston Jr., two lawmakers who both represented the 41st District.
Boston, who was challenging Blount for the Senate seat, sought to disqualify the powerful majority leader and chair of the Education Health and Environmental Affairs Committee on that basis that he no longer lived in the district. Instead, Blount successfully argued to an Anne Arundel Circuit Court judge that Blount had abandoned the district to live in a condo in Baltimore County.
An apartment in the district with no phone and little furniture was a sham for appearances, Boston, who died a decade ago, argued at the time. The Court of Appeals later overturned that decision.
“We were devastated,” said Frank Boston III, an Annapolis lobbyist and the son of the late delegate. The lobbyist did not return a request for an interview but in a February hearing said Sydnor’s bill “corrects the law to be what everyone thought the law already was.”
But the court ruling sided with Blount saying that even though he clearly lived in Pikesville he intended to live in the 41st District and maintained voter registration and other connections to the apartment in the district.
“We feel if you represent a district you should have to live there and share the same blood, tears, sweat and joy that the rest of the district shares,” Frank Boston III said earlier this year.