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.

My Fellow Democrats Need to Step Up on Redistricting Reform

I live in Prince George’s County. As all Marylanders know, our county is about as Democratic as any area of the country can be. So when I went to the September 29 Maryland Redistricting Reform Commission hearing in Waldorf, I had a whole new experience when I realized that most people at the hearing seemed to be Republicans. I have never before been to a political gathering in Maryland where Republicans outnumber Democrats.

I fully understand why Maryland Republicans are for redistricting reform. After all, they are the primary target of Maryland Democrats’ gerrymandering. But still, where were all my fellow Democrats? Are we really such partisans that we don’t see any problem with our ridiculously gerrymandered Congressional maps?

I hope many fair-minded Democrats who care about good governance attend the two remaining Redistricting Reform Commission meetings: October 6 in Easton and October 13 in Laurel. (Check the Commission’s website for meeting details.) We need to make it clear that there is bipartisan support for redistricting reform.

My Case for Redistricting Reform

The below is my testimony at the Maryland Redistricting Reform Commission hearing on September 29, 2015.

Good evening. My name is Tommi Makila. I live in Accokeek in Southern Prince George’s County.

I am a strong, dedicated Democrat. However, I detest blind partisanship and putting the interests of a political party—even if it is my own party—ahead of common good and good governance. When it comes to our gerrymandered congressional and legislative maps, I am embarrassed to be a Maryland Democrat. Thus, I am thankful that our Republican governor has established this Redistricting Reform Commission.

When it comes to the redistricting reform effort, I am not blind to the partisan reasoning Maryland Republicans have for wanting reform. However, I would like to point out to my Democratic friends that they should, in their own long-term interest, get behind the reform idea. If we Democrats continue our selfish political machinations at the expense of all Maryland residents, our now-dominant position in the state will eventually end. People will put up with bad governance only for so long. And, whatever happened to just doing the right thing?

Assuming we will reform our system of redistricting, what exactly should the new system look like? What I hear mostly from reform advocates is that we need to form some type of an independent commission that will wrangle over the new districts. If such a commission is formed and properly structured, it would surely be an improvement over the system we now have. However, I am afraid that the political fighting and power plays would only move from the Legislature to the commission. Knowing how powerful the Democratic political machine is in Maryland, I would expect the machine to figure out a way to influence the supposedly independent commission. Also, the redistricting process through a commission would likely be time-consuming, and possibly costly.

Instead of the independent commission model, I urge this Reform Commission to seriously consider a model similar to the one used in Iowa. I used to live in Iowa for ten years, so I am fairly familiar with their system. In Iowa, civil servants in the independent Legislative Services Agency use computers to generate the new maps. These maps must meet strict criteria when it comes to population, existing political boundaries, and other factors. Addresses of incumbent politicians are not allowed to be used in coming up with the maps. When these maps are generated, the Iowa legislature can vote the maps up or down. If they are voted down, new maps will be generated by the same civil servants, using the same criteria. If the legislature rejects three sets of maps, the final maps will be decided by the courts. To my knowledge, as long as Iowa has been using this system, the issue has never gone to the courts.

I believe the Iowa model has many advantages over the independent commission model. It truly removes the political wrangling from the process, as much as it is possible. It is very cost effective, requiring a minimal amount of resources and time. It is a system that utilizes modern mapping technologies, making us work smarter, not harder.

Thank you for your time.

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.

Why Term Limit Extension Is a Bad Idea – Reason 5

Many people have expressed concern about the low voter turnout in Maryland elections. In my view, one reason for this is the fact that we have very few competitive races. Often Prince George’s County incumbents get to coast through the primary without any opposition, and due to one-party dominance there is only token Republican opposition in the general election. With such uncompetitive elections, why bother voting? In this year’s general election, I only had two races on my ballot that I consider to be somewhat competitive—the governor’s race and the Board of Education race.

If we extend the term limits for our county officials, we will have even fewer competitive races. That would surely have a negative impact on the already dismal voter turnout.

Why Term Limit Extension Is a Bad Idea – Reason 4

One of the reasons given for the term limit extension for our county leadership is that our elected officials need more time to fully learn their complicated jobs.

I don’t know about you all, but I think eight years is plenty of time to learn a job, no matter how complicated. If our elected officials need eight years to learn the job, they really aren’t up to the job and clearly did not have enough experience when they got elected.

In short: Our county leadership positions are not for slow learners.

Why Term Limit Extension Is a Bad Idea – Reason 3

From where I am sitting, it seems clear to me that the underlying message our county leadership is sending to us voters about the term limit extension is this: “We are doing a good job, so we deserve more time in office.”

While I agree that the County Executive and County Council deserve credit for the current positive trajectory in Prince George’s County, this reasoning also leads to the most obvious objection to the term limit extension idea: Without term limits, none of our current county leaders would be in office. In our system of incumbent slates and “sample ballot” advertisements, it is virtually impossible for an incumbent to lose an election. Without term limits, Rushern Baker and Mel Franklin would only be waging hopeless campaigns against long-term incumbents.

Media Coverage on Term Limits

It has been good to see that the term limit extension has been getting some media coverage. Yours truly was interviewed for a Laurel Leader/Baltimore Sun piece this past week. The Gazette ran a while back a similar story  on the topic.

In my view, the most interesting stories have been about the struggle at the Prince George’s County Democratic Central Committee whether to endorse the term limit extension. The topic was so contentious that it was tabled at the first meeting. In the second meeting,  the Central Committee relented after debate and decided to endorse the term limit extension on the party’s “official” sample ballots.

It will be interesting to see if the sample ballot endorsements will be enough to take the term limit extension over the finish line. Knowing the power of our sample ballots, I am worried.