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.

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