The June 2018 Democratic primary election in Prince George’s County was a lively entanglement with many candidates in various races, energetic campaigning, and at times heated rhetoric. As a candidate myself for the Maryland Senate, I had a front row seat to the campaigning and got to observe many candidates and their campaigns up close and personal.
To a casual voter or outside observer the Prince George’s primary seems like any other electoral contest. However, when one takes a closer look, our elections have one rather unique, and troubling, aspect: the role the “sample ballot” advertisements play in the Democratic primary elections. In many parts of Maryland sample ballot advertisements are considered inappropriate in primary elections. In other areas such ballots are used, but it seems that it is in Prince George’s County where sample ballots play a more central role than anywhere else. In fact, Prince George’s County Democratic voters have been conditioned to expect a sample ballot from their elected officials to tell them how to vote.
The most troubling aspect about the sample ballots is the fact that the ones provided by the political establishment are billed as the “official Democratic sample ballot.” For many less informed voters, this wording seems to indicate that the candidates checked on the ballot have been endorsed by the Democratic Party. Some voters think that the candidates not checked on the ballot are not even Democrats. Of course, the reality is that there is nothing “official” about the ballots, as the Democratic Party does not make endorsements in its own primary. These sample ballots are nothing but advertisements for certain candidates.
Some people may wonder what the issue with the sample ballots is. So what if candidate A gets elected instead of candidate B as a result of this practice?
There are a couple of fundamental and very serious problems with these ballots. First, the end result is that in many cases an inferior candidate—inferior when considering factors such as qualifications, prior community involvement, integrity, issue platform, and campaign effort—ends up winning a race over a superior candidate. When you have these inferior candidates in office, the quality of our political decision making suffers and we often end up with a public official who is an embarrassment to the community. (To be clear, my own race was not one of those where the sample ballots were decisive. Running against Senator Thomas V. “Mike” Miller, the nation’s longest-serving senate president, would have been a steep uphill battle even without any sample ballots.)
The second problem is that these sample ballots form the foundation that our Democratic “political machine” is built on. By heavily tilting the playing field through the use of sample ballots our political establishment is able to dictate to a large extent who gets elected to what office. Thus, in Prince George’s County, most of our new elected officials owe their election to these sample ballots and those incumbent politicians who placed them on the ballots. As a result, even well-meaning new elected officials easily become co-opted by the political machine and end up working more for the people who helped them get elected rather than the voters.
In order to restore fairness in Prince George’s County elections and improve the quality of our political decision making, the role of sample ballot advertisements must be diminished. The use of highly deceptive “official Democratic sample ballot” language needs to be banned either through Democratic Party rules or legislation. We also must work toward changing our political culture so that it will be considered inappropriate for our incumbent politicians to try to unduly influence the results of other local races. We need to have elections where all candidates compete on their own merits.