Category Archives: Sample ballots

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.

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.

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 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:

* Election winner

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

* 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.

Election results: Maryland State Board of Elections, 2014 Official General Election Results,
Fundraising: Maryland State Board of Elections, Maryland Campaign Reporting Information System,
Democratic slate endorsements: For example,
Washington Post endorsements:
Gazette endorsements:
Prince George’s County Educators’ Association endorsements:

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.

The Good Fight Must Continue

Life happens to all of us, including me. PTSA and other school activism has taken a lot of my time over the last year. Recently I was appointed to our HOA board. Most importantly, I try to spend time with my family. And I do have a full-time job. As a result, this blog has been neglected over the last year.

Still, the fight against the Maryland political machine must continue. Even though the Democratic machine experienced a shock of a lifetime in the 2014 gubernatorial election, its grip on the lower ballot races remained as tight as ever. Entry to the political class continues to be tightly controlled by incumbent politicians through their slates, sample ballots, and gerrymandering.

On the gerrymandering front there is some hope and movement, thanks to the Maryland Redistricting Reform Commission established by Governor Hogan. But due to strong resistance by the Democratic machine (remember, I am a Democrat), reforming our system of redistricting is far from certain. To fight slates and their sample ballots, our next chance for real reform will be in the 2018 election. But, to have a chance at beating the political machine in 2018, we need to start preparing for the battle now.

Stay tuned! I will do my best to use this blog to feature redistricting reform developments and keep sharing thoughts on my favorite topic: candidate slates, sample ballots, and the corrosive impact those “Maryland traditions” have on our elections.