Category Archives: 2018 election

Prince George’s County Politicians Need to Part with “Sample Ballot” Tradition

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.

What “Taking Over the Democratic Party” Means in Prince George’s

As I have noted before, Michael Moore got it right when, in the immediate aftermath of Hillary Clinton’s defeat against Donald Trump, he declared that we need to “take over the Democratic Party and return it to the people.” Numerous other commentators have expressed the same sentiment.

But what exactly does “taking over the Democratic Party” mean?

First, the change must start at the local grassroots level – in the counties and state parties. A new head of the Democratic National Committee will not suffice.

Second, what kind of change is needed at the local level is not the same everywhere. In a local Democratic Party where there are truly competitive primary elections, the fight may be over the type of candidates and party leaders we have – progressives, centrists, or whatever else. In other parts of the country, like in my home in Prince George’s County in Maryland, the fight needs to be about actually having competitive primary elections. Currently we have a system that is fully dominated by the Democratic political machine. Our incumbent politicians control all of our lower ballot races through their candidate slates and “sample ballots.” And, since we are a county dominated by one party, we don’t have any real competition in the general election either.

When you have this kind of machine politics, “taking over the Democratic Party” must focus on breaking the political machine. This can only happen by providing a strong and credible citizen-focused alternative to the establishment slates and sample ballots in our primary elections. Once we elect our local politicians in real competitive elections, then we can start worrying if our elected officials are too liberal/progressive/centrist/moderate/conservative to our taste.

Way Forward for Prince George’s Democrats

After the shocking Trump victory, what is next for us Democrats?

In his day after the election post Michael Moore nailed it: “Take over the Democratic Party and return it to the people. They have failed us miserably.”

There is no other place where Moore’s advice is more needed than in Prince George’s County. Our Democratic Party establishment practices total machine politics and actively ignores the needs and opinions of the people.

Take this 2016 election season as an example. Our Democratic establishment quietly added Question D to the ballot to create two new at large seats to the County Council. The only reason for this proposal was for the incumbent County Council members to be able circumvent voter-approved term limits and stay in office. The issue was buried among the bond questions on the ballot, and voters’ mail boxes were saturated with fake “Democratic sample ballots” advocating for passage of Question D. Not surprisingly, this tactic worked like a charm and the two at large seats were approved.

Our Democratic establishment also pushed relentlessly for its preferred candidates in the school board elections through the same “Democratic sample ballots” that were used to promote Question D. This was done despite the fact that school board elections are supposed to be nonpartisan contests and the Prince George’s County Democratic Central Committee had not made endorsements in the races.

There is nothing new in the Democratic political machine trying to manipulate our local elections. Every time there is a primary election—the only races that usually matter in our overwhelmingly Democratic county—our incumbent politicians pool their resources by forming slates and using sample ballot advertisements. Because it is nearly impossible for challengers to match the pooled resources of the incumbent politicians, these slates and sample ballots provide nearly foolproof incumbency protection. The sample ballots also enable the establishment to decide who wins any lower ballot open races, as the candidates chosen to be on the incumbent sample ballot almost always win. Thus, our incumbent politicians are gatekeepers to elected office, and the slates and sample ballots are the glue that keeps the political machine together.

In order for us to return the Prince George’s County Democratic Party to the people, we must break this political machine. At this time, I see only one strategy to achieve this: We must fight fire with fire, starting in the 2018 primary election. We must recruit good independent-minded candidates for many, if not all, political offices in the county. These candidates must collaborate, pool their resources, and run relentless grassroots campaigns. Defeating the Prince George’s political machine won’t be easy, but we must do the right thing and fight for the people.

The 2018 primary election is still some ways off. In the meantime, it is important for Prince George’s county grassroots activists to work on high priority local issues, such as giving power back to the people by returning to an all-elected school board. However, I see no meaningful change happening in Prince George’s County until we oust the establishment politicians who control the political machine and ignore the will of the people.