The politics of political machines in suburban counties

Sample ballots, slates and campaign signs

By: Richard Elliott and an Anonymous writer

The history of the “Official Democratic Party” sample ballot has a long history, dating back to 1974 in Prince George’s County. This ballot was, and still is, the primary method of ensuring the white machine’s hand-chosen black candidates win political office, with political pawn Tommie Broadwater being the head of the ticket in 1974.

Broadwater beat sitting D24 Delegate Arthur King (D), the first Chair of the Maryland Legislative Black Caucus, 3-to-1 in a State Senate race by using these ballots as mailers and election day passouts, courtesy of the Hoyer/Miller Blue Ribbon Selection Committee. Now, these ballots are funded by developers & deep-pocketed incumbent State Senators or (in Dereck Davis’ case) State Delegates. These ballots have an enormous role in our elections and are almost never beaten. One of the few candidates who has ever beat the sample ballot was LaTasha Ward for Democratic Central Committee in 2014.

They are innocently handed out at polling stations to voters who haven’t done much research on the candidates because the local media source is limited in reporting or for those who may need a reminder sheet. When I visited my polling location in Bowie during the primary election with my grandfather, there were dozens of staffers, volunteers, and candidates passing out a wide variety of sample ballots, endorsement sheets, and other political information in such a rapid-fire barrage that most voters are more confused than before they arrived. No one ever looks at the bottom of these “official” ballots to know how they are funded.

They don’t say anything whatsoever about policy. It is simply bubbled in names. And these ballots control the balance of power not just in the legislature, but also in the County Council, Democratic Central Committee, & Board of Education. This is how there is such a machine stranglehold on the whole of Prince George’s County politics, from top to bottom with very few exceptions.

Look into who is funding these ballots.

This “Team Harford” ballot (posted below) was given out via an unregistered slate. “Slates” are combined campaign efforts of candidates running for various offices. In the overwhelming majority of legislative districts, the slate is the State Senator and Delegates. In some districts, especially in Prince George’s County, these include candidates for every position including Democratic Central Committee & Board of Education.

These slates are PACs, which allows unlimited amounts of money to be donated anonymously. Former County Executive Rushern Baker’s campaign received $206,000 in unreported campaign donations, believed to be from a billionaire apartment owner through a slate called “County 1”. Baltimore City Mayor Catherine Pugh & Eric Costello are both part of the Baltimore County Victory Slate. With sample ballots and ironclad slates that are heavily funded by corporate PACs & developers, beating incumbents is virtually impossible. Even worse, most candidates who are defeated by this unfair system quit the process, throwing out the institutional knowledge of how to campaign.

Harford general election sample ballot from an unregistered slate. Multiple black candidates were excluded (Taylor & Strickland Lucas)

Slates get money to candidates. Sample ballots get voters. And how do candidates who are often invisible to their communities & constituents develop name recognition? Signs.

Throughout Maryland, developers have large campaign signs on their property. On the day that Early Voting started in Baltimore, campaign signs for the Rushern Baker/Elizabeth Embry ticket ended up in front of many vacant lots. In Prince George’s and Baltimore City, rental properties often have large signs on the premises regardless of what the tenant’s political opinions are.

Signs are expensive, difficult to assemble, and you need to either own property or have connections in order to place them up in high-visibility areas. Drive around Baltimore and you’ll still see Thiru Vignarajah, Belinda Conaway, Westley West, and even Carl Stokes signs still up. Anywhere that signs can stay up, just have more signs plastered over them in perpetuity. Signs, especially signs of black candidates in white areas, are often stolen, damaged, uprooted, and disassembled.

In front of the Vista Gardens Shopping Center in Bowie, the Donna Edwards for County Executive sign was flipped over. Dozens of Tim Adams for State Senate(D23) signs mysteriously vanished the day after they were placed. Curiously, Hogan signs dotted Enterprise Road in Prince George’s for months on end. Developers that own lots of property and candidates who can afford large numbers of signs leave them dotting the landscape for years, which undoubtedly confuses voters and is a visual irritant.

Delegates Steve Johnson(D34A), Ron Watson(D23B), Marvin Holmes Jr.(D23B), and Tawanna Gaines(D22) are all developers, realtors, or landlords. Holmes is the Chair of the Housing and Real Property Subcommittee, and the Chair of Land Use and Ethics. Yes, a realtor oversees the bill process on housing, property, land use, and the ethics of land use. Is it a surprise that the cost of living continues to rise without a serious response by the state?

Maryland’s politics are run as a machine, with the multi-member districts almost always running as a slate alongside the Senator, boxing out challengers. With the high cost in both dollars & time of running a campaign plus the limited amount of media, the only way most people see to win an election is by joining the Miller machine.

Democratic State President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller Jr. (D27) has maintained autocratic control of the state by controlling the sample ballots, giving heavy donations to various slates & candidates via the Senate Democratic Caucus Committee, choosing committee chairs, gutting and killing legislation at will, and (most relevant) picking who can get to Annapolis in the first place.

Incumbent candidates often transfer campaign donations to their allies in the legislature, particularly those in leadership positions. Elections are far too expensive, and the incumbents have enormous campaign advantages. And while insurgents can’t win, legislators like Curt Anderson and Frank Conaway Jr. get re-elected without their communities ever seeing them during election time.

While Delegate Lisanti’s racist language and her refusal to apologize or take responsibility is deeply offensive, we should address how institutional racism infects our electoral politics in both parties. If more constituents become aware of the tactics of political machines, we can build a better political system and expand the supermajority with progressive, community centered Democrats like Mary Washington & Jill P. Carter, instead of corporate PAC-backed machinists like Delegate Lisanti & Senate President Miller.

Richard DeShay Elliott is a Ph. D candidate at Johns Hopkins University, a chapter lead for Progressive Maryland-Baltimore, the former campaign manager for Allison Berkowitz (District 7), and Director of Digital Strategy for Allison Galbraith (Maryland’s 1st congressional district).

An anonymous constituent from District 34A also contributed to this article.

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