Two More Council Members Is Not What We Need

In 2014, once again, Prince George’s County voters rejected a term limit extension for our County Council members. Apparently the desire of current Council members to stay on is very strong, as the County Council is considering to place a referendum item on the November ballot to create two new, at-large Council seats. Information on the proposal can be found in a recent Washington Post article. Resident response to the proposal was not very positive, as is reflected in a Sentinel article about a July 11 public hearing on the matter.

In my view, more Council members is not what we need. My testimony at the July 11 hearing outlines my thoughts on the kind of electoral reform we do need:

Good evening,

My name is Tommi Makila. I live in Accokeek. I am a community activist, past PTA president, and current HOA president, but I am speaking as an individual tonight.

I am strongly opposed to the current proposal to add two at-large members to the Council. Knowing this Council’s history of pushing for extension of term limits, this is another obvious attempt to give some of you additional time on the Council. The self-serving nature of the proposal is so glaring that I don’t need to dwell on the issue. If the Council really feels that there is some merit in creating at-large council seats, those seats should be created by reducing the number of district council seats so as to make the proposal budget neutral.

I can see the reason why you all feel that you deserve more time on the Council. I believe the county has been moving in the right direction over the last few years, and the Council has played a role in these positive developments. I want to thank you all for that.

I even agree with you that our electoral system is holding our county back. However, my diagnosis of our problems differs greatly from yours. From where I am sitting, I don’t think our main problem is that you all only get to serve two terms on the Council. From my perspective, the real problem is that our local, down ballot elections are decided by a small circle of our establishment politicians well before any votes are cast. What I’m talking about are the slates and their sample ballots. You all know how that system works. While I don’t know the electoral history of you all, I am fairly certain that most of you can thank an incumbent slate for your seat on the Council. If you are honest, you should be able to admit that the slate was much more likely to be decisive in the race that first put you on the Council than your superior ideas or skills as a candidate when compared to your rivals. No offense to any of you, but this is the sad reality in our county.

What the system of slates and their sample ballots amounts to is machine politics – machine politics at its worst. The stench of backroom dealing to decide our important local elections is bad for us as a county. We residents suffer when our politicians are more accountable to the political establishment than us voters.

So, instead of spending your time and energy trying to find ways to extend your time on the Council, I urge you all to join the fight to change our culture of machine politics. Instead of fighting for this amendment, launch a campaign to unseat a lackluster legislator or other incumbent politician. Since you are current officeholders, you are the ones with the name recognition and track record to successfully challenge other politicians. And, as you wage future political campaigns, take a pledge not to join establishment slates and sample ballots. Instead, be politicians who are accountable only to the voters – not the political machine. Let’s have some real, exciting and competitive elections! That would be very good for our county.

Thank you for your time.

Political Lessons from Hockey

I am a native of Finland, so hockey is my sport of choice.

Over the last 20 or 30 years, the United States has made impressive gains in international hockey. When the “Miracle on Ice” happened in the 1980 Olympics, the U.S. was far from a hockey powerhouse. That is one reason why the victory over the mighty Soviet team was such a big deal. Since 1980 things have changed significantly. The number of American-born players in the National Hockey League has risen significantly, and in today’s international hockey tournaments the U.S. is always considered one of the favorites.

So what happened to enable the rise of American hockey? While I am not the foremost expert on the topic, two factors jump out at me. First, the NHL has significantly expanded its presence in the U.S., from the traditional hockey areas in the Northeast and Upper Midwest to all over the country, including the not-so-wintry states of Florida (2 teams), California (3 teams), and Texas (1 team). The spread of hockey to these new areas has brought a greater number of youth to the game. Besides the geographic expansion, USA Hockey—the primary organization promoting youth and amateur hockey in the country—has focused on reaching out to non-traditional groups and areas.

Note that both of these factors relate to expanding the reach of hockey. As you grow the pool of potential hockey players, the available talent pool expands as well. As a result, American hockey teams in all age groups have become stronger and more competitive, and more American players reach the highest level of the game.

What is the political lesson in all this? – As with most things with me, it all comes back to the role the incumbent slates play in Maryland politics. When an election is rigged by an incumbent slate, fewer potential candidates are willing to throw their hat in the ring. Why bother with the significant effort when the election is decided by incumbent politicians behind closed doors?

As long as we let incumbent slates pick our elected officials, we are hurting ourselves by shutting out top talent from the system. If we want a top-notch political team, we need to expand the pool of potential candidates by providing truly competitive elections—especially in the lower ballot “entry-level” races.

Letting incumbent politicians decide our elections is like a youth hockey coach reaching out only to his closest friends to find kids for the team. It is no way to build a talented and successful team.

What If Maryland Played Decisive Role in Presidential Primary?

It is again that time when Iowa and New Hampshire loom large for us political junkies. Some of my best and most exciting political experiences are from the epic Iowa caucus season of 2007-2008.

When Barack Obama entered the Democratic primary field in early 2007, nobody gave him much of a chance. Most people—especially political insiders and “experts”—thought Hillary Clinton was a shoo-in for the Democratic nomination. Luckily, both Iowa and New Hampshire voters are an independent-minded bunch who want to truly vet the candidates and give everyone a chance. Voters in the early states want to meet candidates in person and hear what they have to say before making up their minds. Without this level playing field, Obama would have had no chance to beat Clinton in 2008.

Just imagine if Maryland had been an early decisive state during the 2008 primary season. Well before the primary, all elected Maryland Democrats would have lined up behind the party establishment’s choice—Hillary Clinton. The substantial campaign resources of the Maryland Democratic machine would have ensured that no challenger had any chance of beating Clinton. Obama, Edwards and all the other candidates would have been crushed. Game over.

Thank you Iowa and New Hampshire for having real elections.

Search for Slate Busters Is On!

I have been ranting about the Democratic slates and their impact on Maryland elections for some time now. The bottom line is, I have yet to hear of a lower ballot candidate (state delegate, county council member, etc.) who beat a person endorsed by an incumbent slate in a Democratic primary. But hey, I have only lived in Maryland since 2009, so the fact that I haven’t heard of such a slate buster does not prove that he/she does not exist.

Thus, the search for slate busters is on! Please let me know if you know of a Maryland candidate who meets the following criteria:

  • Was a candidate in lower ballot race (delegate, county council member, etc.) in a Democratic primary election
  • Won the Democratic primary
  • Was NOT endorsed by the incumbent Democratic slate and was NOT included on the slate’s “sample ballot” advertisement
  • Had an opponent who was endorsed by the incumbent Democratic slate and included on the slate’s “sample ballot” advertisement

If you know of such a candidate, please email me at tommi at realelectionsmd.com with details.

Slate Endorsements Are Major Factor in BOE Elections

This post originally appeared on the Prince George’s County Advocates for Better blog. I am posting it here as well, as the topic is highly relevant to this blog.

How do you know which candidate is most likely to win a Prince George’s County Board of Education race? As with any election, there are many factors at play. Some aspects of the candidates and races may be too difficult to analyze objectively, such as the quality of the candidates’ ideas, campaign skills, and personal effort put into campaign activities. However, many important factors affecting the campaigns are quantifiable and easily compared.

In order to determine what factor has the greatest impact on the election results, I set out to analyze the 2014 BOE races in Prince George’s County. Based on my knowledge about our elections, I identified the following four factors as major potential contributing factors to a candidate’s success:

  • Incumbency
  • Fundraising
  • Democratic Party slate endorsement
  • Other endorsements (local media, county teachers union)

To refresh everyone’s memory, here are the general election results for the four BOE elections held in 2014:

makila_boe_table1
* Election winner

And this is how the analysis of the four major factors came out:

makila_boe_table2
* Williams was appointed to the District 9 seat less than a year before the election
** Includes endorsements by the Washington Post, Gazette, and Prince George’s County Educators’ Association

To better identify the factor that appears to have the greatest impact on the election results, the following color-coded table indicates the factors where each candidate had a clear advantage (green), disadvantage (red), or the candidates were somewhat equal (yellow).makila_boe_table3

Determining which analyzed factor best correlates with the election results is not very difficult.

Sources:
Election results: Maryland State Board of Elections, 2014 Official General Election Results,http://elections.state.md.us/index.html
Fundraising: Maryland State Board of Elections, Maryland Campaign Reporting Information System,https://campaignfinancemd.us/
Democratic slate endorsements: For example, http://teambaker.nationbuilder.com/team-baker
Washington Post endorsements: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-posts-choices-for-prince-georges-school-board/2014/10/07/600db698-44be-11e4-b437-1a7368204804_story.html
Gazette endorsements: http://www.gazette.net/section/2014electionendorse
Prince George’s County Educators’ Association endorsements: www.pgcea.org/pgceaendorsedcandidates.cfm

Martin O’Malley, the Rigged Election Expert

This post is an op-ed I submitted a while back to the local opinion pages of the Washington Post. It never got published, so I am posting it here (slightly revised) in honor of tonight’s first Democratic presidential debate.

Martin O’Malley raised hell at the Democratic National Committee’s meeting in Minneapolis in August. He was outraged that only six debates sanctioned by the Democratic Party will be held and that the DNC intends to penalize candidates who will participate in unsanctioned debates. O’Malley said the Democratic primary is rigged in favor of the establishment favorite, Hillary Clinton.

I tend to agree with O’Malley on the number of debates and penalizing candidates for participating in additional debates. Still, it seems bit of a stretch to call an election “rigged” when, after all, several debates will take place. But who can blame an underdog candidate polling in low single digits for advocating to have more debates and free exposure?

What I find extremely ironic is that of all the candidates it is Martin O’Malley who complains and makes claims about a “rigged election.” If one really wants to see a completely rigged election, you must study the Democratic Party primaries here in O’Malley’s own Maryland. As we politically engaged Marylanders know, the incumbent Democratic politicians in each legislative district form candidate slates that raise funds and advertise jointly. Especially in low-budget down-ballot races—such as for state delegate, county council, and sometimes even the non-partisan school board— it is impossible to beat an incumbent that appears on the “official” Democratic primary ballot advertisement. When there is an open seat for any of these entry-level political positions, the candidate endorsed by the incumbent slate always wins. The reason the slates are so powerful is that it is virtually impossible, in the down-ballot races in particular, for a candidate to raise enough funds to be able to compete on an even playing field with a slate-endorsed candidate.

This rigged primary election system is the foundation that the Democratic Party political machine in Maryland rests on. (I write this as a dedicated Democrat.) Our incumbent politicians stand as gatekeepers to the party establishment and positions of power. If you get in, you will owe your election to the benefactors who were kind enough to select you for their slate advertisement. In fact, falling out of favor with your fellow elected officials is the only way for an incumbent politician to lose a primary election. Amazingly, even many politically engaged Marylanders don’t fully grasp the impact the incumbent slates have on our political system.

To my knowledge, O’Malley never had any problems with our rigged primary system when it benefited him and his fellow Maryland establishment Democrats. Also, if one starts talking about rigged elections beyond primaries, it is good to remember that during O’Malley’s governorship Maryland produced what most neutral observers consider the most gerrymandered Congressional districts of any Democrat-controlled state. Thus, you must forgive me for not having much sympathy for Mr. O’Malley when he continues his battle in the supposedly rigged presidential primary.

My Fellow Democrats Need to Step Up on Redistricting Reform

I live in Prince George’s County. As all Marylanders know, our county is about as Democratic as any area of the country can be. So when I went to the September 29 Maryland Redistricting Reform Commission hearing in Waldorf, I had a whole new experience when I realized that most people at the hearing seemed to be Republicans. I have never before been to a political gathering in Maryland where Republicans outnumber Democrats.

I fully understand why Maryland Republicans are for redistricting reform. After all, they are the primary target of Maryland Democrats’ gerrymandering. But still, where were all my fellow Democrats? Are we really such partisans that we don’t see any problem with our ridiculously gerrymandered Congressional maps?

I hope many fair-minded Democrats who care about good governance attend the two remaining Redistricting Reform Commission meetings: October 6 in Easton and October 13 in Laurel. (Check the Commission’s website for meeting details.) We need to make it clear that there is bipartisan support for redistricting reform.

My Case for Redistricting Reform

The below is my testimony at the Maryland Redistricting Reform Commission hearing on September 29, 2015.

Good evening. My name is Tommi Makila. I live in Accokeek in Southern Prince George’s County.

I am a strong, dedicated Democrat. However, I detest blind partisanship and putting the interests of a political party—even if it is my own party—ahead of common good and good governance. When it comes to our gerrymandered congressional and legislative maps, I am embarrassed to be a Maryland Democrat. Thus, I am thankful that our Republican governor has established this Redistricting Reform Commission.

When it comes to the redistricting reform effort, I am not blind to the partisan reasoning Maryland Republicans have for wanting reform. However, I would like to point out to my Democratic friends that they should, in their own long-term interest, get behind the reform idea. If we Democrats continue our selfish political machinations at the expense of all Maryland residents, our now-dominant position in the state will eventually end. People will put up with bad governance only for so long. And, whatever happened to just doing the right thing?

Assuming we will reform our system of redistricting, what exactly should the new system look like? What I hear mostly from reform advocates is that we need to form some type of an independent commission that will wrangle over the new districts. If such a commission is formed and properly structured, it would surely be an improvement over the system we now have. However, I am afraid that the political fighting and power plays would only move from the Legislature to the commission. Knowing how powerful the Democratic political machine is in Maryland, I would expect the machine to figure out a way to influence the supposedly independent commission. Also, the redistricting process through a commission would likely be time-consuming, and possibly costly.

Instead of the independent commission model, I urge this Reform Commission to seriously consider a model similar to the one used in Iowa. I used to live in Iowa for ten years, so I am fairly familiar with their system. In Iowa, civil servants in the independent Legislative Services Agency use computers to generate the new maps. These maps must meet strict criteria when it comes to population, existing political boundaries, and other factors. Addresses of incumbent politicians are not allowed to be used in coming up with the maps. When these maps are generated, the Iowa legislature can vote the maps up or down. If they are voted down, new maps will be generated by the same civil servants, using the same criteria. If the legislature rejects three sets of maps, the final maps will be decided by the courts. To my knowledge, as long as Iowa has been using this system, the issue has never gone to the courts.

I believe the Iowa model has many advantages over the independent commission model. It truly removes the political wrangling from the process, as much as it is possible. It is very cost effective, requiring a minimal amount of resources and time. It is a system that utilizes modern mapping technologies, making us work smarter, not harder.

Thank you for your time.