Party Politics, Exhibit A: Sample Ballots

by Genevieve Demos Kelley

2016 sample ballot mailer2

Last week, I eagerly listened to a segment on Kojo Nnamdi’s WAMU radio show that addressed our politicized school board elections. David Cahn, Co-Chair of Citizens for an Elected Board, and Cheryl Landis, District 5 Board of Education Candidate and Chair of the Democratic Central Committee for Prince George’s County were guests on the show.

At one point, Mr. Nnamdi seemed to understate—or even misstate—the concern that so many of us have about partisan meddling in our school board elections. Speaking to Cheryl Landis, Mr. Nnamdi said, “Mr. Cahn and presumably others are concerned that you make it clear in some of your campaigning that you are a Democrat.”

If Mr. Nnamdi thinks that simply stating one’s party affiliation sums up the problem with partisan campaigns for school board, he is sadly missing the point.

Among the campaign literature for April’s primary election was a mailer sent to District 5 residents touting County Executive Baker’s endorsed candidates. Note the “sample ballot” on page 2 (pictured above), with the banner at the top reading, “2016 Democratic Primary Sample Ballot, Take this with you when you vote.” Names of the preferred candidates are highlighted; names of the other candidates are printed so lightly that only those with sharp eyesight can read them.

When a school board candidate is presented on a sample ballot as the preferred choice (or, in this case, the only choice) of party leaders, it is nearly impossible for any other candidate to prevail. This is the kind of partisan meddling that has led many county residents to conclude that party leaders are stacking the board with hand-selected members, members who owe them their loyalty.

 

Should the Democratic Central Committee Endorse School Board Candidates?

Tommi Makila wrote the following letter urging the Democratic Central Committee not to endorse specific Board of Education candidates in the upcoming elections.

July 17, 2016

TO: Prince George’s County Democratic Central Committee

RE: Board of Education election endorsements

Dear Central Committee Members:

I am a Democratic community activist who is closely involved in the Prince George’s County Public Schools. I have served on the PTSA board of my child’s school for five years. I have also served for two years as the legislative chair of the Prince George’s County PTA Council, and during that time I have also served on the Maryland PTA legislative committee. I am a member of Prince George’s County Advocates for Better Schools and a founding member of the Alliance for Nonpartisan School Board Elections. I am writing this letter, however, as a concerned parent and individual community activist.

I am writing to you to urge that the Democratic Central Committee not make any endorsements in the November 2016 Prince George’s County Board of Education elections. As the Central Committee makes its decision about potential endorsements in BOE races, I would like you to keep the following issues in mind:

1. By Maryland law, school board elections are to be nonpartisan. I have a hard time coming up with anything else that could be as much against the spirit of this law than the central committee of one of the major parties making endorsements in these races.

2. In a down ballot race such as a BOE election, a Democratic Central Committee endorsement and its accompanying significant financial benefit in the form of the Democratic sample ballot is nearly certain to be decisive. In a down ballot race, it is virtually impossible for any opponent to garner enough financial resources to match the Democratic Party resources. I want us voters to decide the race based on the ideas the candidates present to us. I don’t want the Central Committee with its significant financial resources to make the decision for us voters.

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