In Maryland, this is a time when many local organizations host forums to vet candidates for various political offices. As someone who attends these events, I would like to think that the candidates who present us with the best vision and work hardest knocking on doors will emerge winners in the June primary election. In reality, however, many of our lower ballot races are decided by a secretive shadow primary involving only a few select individuals well before any actual votes are cast.
As most registered Maryland voters know, in the last couple weeks before the primary you will receive a nice glossy “sample ballot” advertisement in the mail touting the incumbent candidates. The flyer is paid for by a political slate consisting of those local incumbents. Whenever there is an open seat with no incumbent, the local officials decide which candidate to endorse and include on the sample ballot.
On the surface, this is all well and good. Politicians have every right to endorse candidates in other races. I have heard that many voters like the sample ballots since they make voting easy. Unfortunately, few people seem to stop and think how these slates and their sample ballot advertisements impact our political process.
In a lower ballot race, such as a Board of Education or County Council race, it is very difficult for a candidate to raise large amounts of money. When an incumbent slate picks its favorite in such a low-budget race, it tilts the race heavily in favor of that candidate. Surely it is possible to beat a candidate endorsed by the incumbent slate, but it is very unlikely. As a result, if a candidate wants to win in one of these lower ballot races, the most important thing for one to to do is gain favor with the incumbent politicians in the area.
The system of slates is very dispiriting for potential candidates and political activists. One person who was interested in running for office flatly stated that she was not going to jump in unless she knew beforehand that she would receive the incumbent slate’s endorsement. Why waste her time and effort in a hopeless cause? The same applies to activists like me who are inclined to volunteer for local campaigns. Why pour my limited time and money into a race that is decided by a handful of incumbent politicians?
Prince George’s County, where I live, has made great progress in reshaping its image in the last few years. However, much work remains to be done, and the stench of backroom insider dealing to determine winners in our elections is particularly harmful for our county. Thus, reforming our election system by getting rid of candidate slates should be a high priority for our elected officials. Sadly, that is not the case. Incumbent politicians are beneficiaries of the current system, and they are not inclined to reform the system unless we—the voters—make the issue a priority and demand change.
This piece was originally submitted to the Washington Post’s “Local Opinions” page, but never published. Thus, I am posting it here on my blog.