Monthly Archives: September 2013

My Problem with Slates and Their “Sample Ballots”

Why do I think incumbent slates and their “sample ballots” are so bad? – Rather than try to rehash my thoughts on the issue, I will refer to my letter to the Gazette that was published in May 2013:

Elect qualified, not connected, candidates in Prince George’s

As one followed the recent debate about the governance of Prince George’s County Public Schools, it seems all parties agreed on one thing: We have not always elected the best and most capable candidates for the Board of Education. As we ponder this, we should reflect on how our elections are conducted.

To understand how our current system works, let’s look at a hypothetical BOE election race: Candidate A is a longtime community activist who is knowledgeable about educational issues and has children in the system. Candidate B is a politically ambitious person who happens to be friends with the local County Council member. Before the election, the council member convinces his fellow incumbent politicians to include Candidate B on the sample ballot that will be mailed to every registered primary voter in the district. The mailing, of course, is funded by a slate formed by the local incumbents.

After this turn of events, what are the chances of Candidate A winning the race? We all know the answer: slim to none. Effectively, the County Council member and his fellow incumbents are the people who decide the race, but there is no guarantee their preferred candidate is the most capable person for the job.

Sadly, this hypothetical situation is reality in many of our lower ballot races. We, the citizens, must demand change and real elections. We deserve elections where all candidates must sink or swim based on their own merits.

Tommi Makila, Accokeek

In the larger election reform context, I would only add one major point to the argument I made in my letter: The slates and their sample ballots make the incumbency protection
nearly fool-proof. As incumbents representing the same area or district usually band together, it is almost impossible for a challenger to amass enough resources to beat an otherwise vulnerable incumbent. Thus, for a politician to stay in office, all he or she needs to do is keep the fellow incumbents happy. As long as your name is on the slate-funded sample ballot mailed to every voter in your district, you really don’t have to worry about challengers.

Mizeur Wins This One!

Props to Heather Mizeur for being the first Maryland gubernatorial candidate to answer my three questions related to good governance! Here are her answers (in red), submitted via Twitter:

  1. If elected, will you actively work to outlaw candidate slates?  – Yes.
  2. If elected, will you actively work to outlaw “sample ballots” used by candidate slates as political advertisements? – No (more than slates use sample ballots, voters find them helpful, likely unconstitutional to prohibit).
  3. If elected, will you actively work to establish an independent, nonpartisan system for drawing legislative and congressional districts? – Yes.

So, not only was Mizeur the first to respond, there were two “yes” answers. Not bad at all!

Since I am a reasonable guy, I will be the first to admit that she makes some valid points about sample ballots. But—and I may be over-interpreting her Tweet here—I get a feeling she has not thought through all the negative impacts these “helpful” sample ballots have, especially on the lower ballot races. I will try to engage her on this in the coming months, so stay tuned.

My Candidate Questions

To make it clear and fair, I am submitting the exact same questions to all the gubernatorial candidates:

  1. If elected, will you actively work to outlaw candidate slates?
  2. If elected, will you actively work to outlaw “sample ballots” used by candidate slates as political advertisements?
  3. If elected, will you actively work to establish an independent, nonpartisan system for drawing legislative and congressional districts?

Three simple yes/no questions, so it should not be overly burdensome for the candidates to provide me with answers. But, as of today, not a single answer received.

Waiting For Answers, and Contact Information for One

Because the candidate websites turned out to be completely useless in trying to figure out where the Maryland gubernatorial candidates stand on the issues I care about, I have
submitted my questions to all candidates. Well, I wanted to submit my questions
to all of them. But it turns out that Republican hopeful Charles Lollar doesn’t
want to be bothered with inquiries. His website does not include a form or an email
address to contact his camp without “joining his team.” So, if anyone has an email address for his folks, please drop me a line!

Republicans Do Better, But Still No Answers

I am a Democrat, but on this one I cannot ignore the facts. I need to give some kudos to the Republican gubernatorial hopefuls. All three declared Republican candidates for governor—David Craig, Ron George, and Charles Lollar—have a section on their websites articulating what their platform and vision for Maryland entails. I know, the bar is very low. But at least these guys cleared it, unlike the pitiful contenders on the Democratic side.

While the Republican candidates are kind enough to tell voters where they want to take us, I was a little surprised that I did not find a single mention on their platform pages about the good governance issues I am advocating for: slates, sample ballots, and redistricting reform. If nothing else, I thought the Republicans would have plans to do something about the gerrymandering that has been so directly aimed at them.

Where is the Beef, Democrats?

I am now getting ready to undertake the actual work I intend to do with this blog—to find out where all the 2014 Maryland gubernatorial candidates stand on the good governance issues of my concern. The natural first step in this process was to go to the candidates’ websites to find out if they have articulated their positions on these issues.

I started with the two declared candidates on the Democratic side, Anthony Brown and Heather Mizeur. What I found on the two candidates’ websites was nothing short of stunning.

I did not find anything on the websites about the two Democratic candidates’ positions on slates, “sample ballots” or redistricting. But honestly, I did not expect to find anything on these specific topics. What completely caught me by surprise was the total lack of information about the candidates’ platforms on the websites—on any issues. Go check it out if you don’t believe me: http://anthonybrown.com/ and http://www.heathermizeur.com/.

When you go to Brown’s website, you will find out about all the wonderful endorsements he has received. When you go to the Mizeur site, you will see that she is attending tons of events all over the place. But no “issues” or “platform” section on either site explaining where the candidate actually stands on issues of concern to Maryland voters. Is this really what our politics has become? It’s not like Brown and Mizeur just entered the race a few days ago, or that they are complete newbies to politics.

On this blog, I intend to stay focused on the good governance issues I care about. But I could not let this observation go without mentioning it. This makes me embarrassed to be a Democrat.

Bold BOE Race Prediction

I want to be the first person to call the Prince George’s County District 9 Board of Education race that will take place in the 2014 election cycle. I thought I would have some time to make this prediction, but the surprising announcement from Donna Hathaway-Beck that she is resigning from her seat effective September 6, 2013 forced my hand. I want to get my prediction out before County Executive Baker announces his pick to fill Mrs. Hathaway-Beck’s remaining term.

Naturally, the resignation of Mrs. Hathaway-Beck has the potential to influence the race to replace her. I had heard from reliable sources that she was not going to run again, so I was expecting there would be an open seat for us District 9 voters to fill in the 2014 election. With an open seat, none of the potential candidates would have the benefits of incumbency̶—which are always significant. Now with the resignation, this dynamic can change. Whoever is appointed by the County Executive to the seat until the election will have at least some of the benefits of an incumbent. Of course, we don’t know if the person appointed to the seat will actually run in the 2014 election, but it is certainly possible.

Despite this new twist in the coming District 9 BOE race, I am very comfortable making my prediction: The person elected in 2014 will be the person who is endorsed by the slate consisting of our local incumbent officeholders (Senator Mike Miller, Delegate James Proctor, Councilman Mel Franklin, and possibly others). We don’t know the name of the person at this time, but we will surely know it before the June primary election.

This prediction also leads to my practical advice to anyone considering a run for the District 9 BOE seat. Don’t worry too much about putting together a formidable election campaign. Your time and effort will be much better spent trying to curry favor with the local incumbents.

How It All Started

I am a relative newcomer to Maryland. After living in Iowa—a political junkie’s presidential wonderland—for ten years, I moved to Maryland in 2009. Since 2010 I have lived in Accokeek in Southern Prince George’s County.

It takes some time to get acquainted with the political system in a new state. This was certainly the case with Maryland for me. I owe special thanks to PGD9Politico over at Prince George’s County D9 Politico Blog for educating me about the ins and outs of Maryland politics.

With my move to Prince George’s County, I have come to appreciate the importance of local politics. Yes, it was exciting to dabble in presidential politics in Iowa in 2007 and 2008. But, the reality is that local politics impacts our daily life much more than the drama of presidential hopefuls angling for caucus votes.

In my four years in Maryland, I have made two fundamental observations about the political system here: 1) For all practical purposes, we are a one-party state; and 2) local politics is tightly controlled by incumbent politicians and other party insiders.

Of course, neither one of these observations is particularly insightful or unique to Maryland. Most states and local jurisdictions are controlled by one party. That’s why the red-blue divide. And, incumbent politicians and party insiders always wield significant power.

Still, as I started to understand our local system better, it became clear to me that the situation in Maryland is particularly bad and detrimental to our democratic (with a lower case “d”) ideals. Not only do our elected politicians have the natural advantages of incumbency—name recognition, media visibility, and better fundraising potential. Due to the ability of incumbent politicians to form slates, they are able to compound their advantage by joining forces. Through the overwhelming power of joint advertising, such as slate-funded “sample ballots,” these incumbents are also able to determine winners in any of the lower ballot primary races they wish to influence. (Since I live in a one-party county, the general election is never competitive.)

The blatant, politically-motivated gerrymandering of legislative and congressional districts is a problem better known and acknowledged in Maryland. Many of our legislative districts are completely disjointed, as they follow no logical geographic or political boundaries. It is obvious that such districts do not serve the best interests of Maryland residents.

My conclusion from all this is that we don’t have real elections in Maryland. We have allowed our incumbent politicians to build nearly impenetrable defense systems to ensure their re-election, to determine the results of all lower ballot races they wish to influence, and to draw mindboggling legislative boundaries to benefit specific incumbents and/or the Democratic party.

It is time for change. We deserve to have real elections in Maryland.