The last day of voter registration in Maryland on Tuesday created a small but hardy crowd outside the Prince George’s County Board of Elections office, creating a line dozens of people long that stretched around the building’s corner.
Although most came to register to vote for the Nov. 3 general election, some also traveled to the election office in Largo to fill out change-of-address forms and handle other business in the majority-Black jurisdiction which boasts more than 600,000 registered voters.
“We haven’t seen a line like this since ‘08,” said Daneen Banks, deputy administrator for the board of elections who has worked in the county since 2008.
For those who registered to vote on or before Tuesday, Banks said they can still request a mail-in ballot if done before the deadline on Tuesday, Oct. 20. She said voters should receive a ballot prior to Election Day.
Registered voters such as Artis Watkins of District Heights drove to Largo and placed his ballot inside the drop-off box. As of Thursday, he joined more than 236,00 residents who have requested mail-in ballots.
“I came up here to drop mine off because I don’t trust the [Trump] administration with my mail,” he said. “The ballot was easy to fill out, drop off and to choose [Democratic presidential nominee] Joe Biden.”
As of 6:15 p.m. Tuesday, about 11.9 million voters have cast early ballots nationwide, according to the United States Election Project managed by University of Florida professor Michael McDonald. However, just four years ago, the presidential election, as of Oct. 16, only recorded 1.4 million early votes cast.
In terms of political parties from nine states including Maryland, Democrats have returned about 3 million ballots while Republicans have recorded 1.2 million ballots.
“Yes, the numbers are very good for Biden. The campaign has to be pleased since they can leverage the banked voters to more efficiently re-target their supporters who have not voted yet,” McDonald wrote Sunday, Oct. 11. “However, it is very likely Republicans will show up in force to vote in-person.”
Most judicial contests in Maryland are either uncontested or laid-back races with voters usually choosing the incumbents to remain on the bench. But that’s not the case this year in the Prince George’s County Circuit Court judicial race.
A Democratic sample ballot mailed to households throughout the county continues to frustrate some voters and one of the six judicial candidates, April Ademiluyi, for several reasons: the ballot asks fellow Democrats to choose incumbent Jared Michael McCarthy, a registered Republican; and some consider the phrase underneath the judicial box which reads “Judicial Candidates Run on a Non-Partisan Basis” as illegal since judicial candidates run “partisan” contests.
“If you have any political advertisement that is misleading, it creates confusion among voters,” said Ademiluyi, 39, an attorney who practices real estate and intellectual property and is running in her third judicial contest. “You can’t justify it and assume voters know.”
Another candidate who has engineered an independent campaign, Gladys Weatherspoon, has 25 years of experience as a defense attorney with an office in Largo.
The remaining three candidates in the judicial race are incumbents: Wyntonja Curry, ShaRon M. Grayson Kelsey and Cathy Serrette. Gov. Larry Hogan announced the appointments of Curry, Kelsey and McCarthy to the bench in November 2018. Serrette has served as a judge for more than 15 years.
The top five chosen in next month’s election will serve on the bench for 15 years.
Similar circuit court contests continue in neighboring Anne Arundel and Montgomery counties.
More significant for Tamara Davis Brown, a lawyer and community activist living in Clinton, all five women running in the judicial race are registered Democrats.
“As Democrats, if you choose to vote solely for Democrats, then you should NOT vote for McCarthy,” Davis Brown wrote Sept. 25 on her Facebook page and in an email sent to registered Democrats in the county.
Sharon Willis of Fort Washington said filling in bubbles on a sample ballot “is deceptive” and believes it’s against state law based on subsection 16-206 under “Offenses as to ballots and balloting in general.” Number four in the section states a person may not “induce or attempt to induce a voter to mark the voter’s ballot in a certain way.”
“Using a sample ballot and filling in the candidate you think voters should choose is wrong. That says you don’t trust the voters,” she said. “The Prince George’s County Board of Elections website has a sample ballot. Use that. Anything short of that ballot is deceptive.”
The Democratic sample ballot notes that it’s paid for by Vote Yes on Question 2 Committee, a group that seeks voter support to pass sports betting in Maryland.
The two major online betting companies, DraftKings and FanDuel, have spent more than $2 million on television ads, online advertising and direct mail campaigns, according to campaign finance reports.
Marissa Coleman, who chairs the Question 2 committee, released a statement Tuesday proudly claiming support from the state’s Democratic Party, county’s Democratic Central Committee, several unions, businesses and candidates.
“Vote Yes on 2 will continue to work with a diverse group of supporters to ensure passage of Question 2 to help fund public education in our state,” said Coleman, a former University of Maryland Terrapins basketball star who is currently overseas playing professionally.
Four other campaign committees are listed on the flyer as “by authority” that include the four incumbents running as a slate as part of the “Committee to Elect Prince George’s County Sitting Judges.”
Sabrina A. Neal, treasurer for the judges committee, didn’t respond to emails for comment.
The Friends of Gladys Weatherspoon campaign committee is also listed on the flyer.
According to the state elections board, an entity which pays for campaign material and has an authority line from other groups means they “are either an in-kind contribution to the political committee or an independent expenditure.”
An in-kind contribution, as defined by the state, is one in which a committee’s name was published with the “candidate’s cooperation, knowledge and coordination.” An independent expenditure means a group paid for campaign material without a candidate’s or committee’s cooperation.
LaTasha Ward, campaign manager for Weatherspoon, said a representative from the Question 2 committee simply asked if the campaign wanted to be placed on the sample ballot. No money had to be spent for that to happen, she said.
“Why would we say no? It’s just a marketing tool,” said Ward, who previously didn’t support sports betting but now does, especially with some revenue designated toward education. “This is a ballot-driven county. The only real ballot is black and white.”
Partisan or Nonpartisan?
Proposed state legislation earlier this year sought to end politics in judicial races, but the coronavirus pandemic caused the 90-day General Assembly session in Annapolis to end early.
The bill sponsored by Dels. Kathleen Dumais (D-Montgomery County) and Jon S. Cardin (D-Baltimore County) and Sen. Delores Kelly (D-Baltimore County), which could be reintroduced when lawmakers convene in January, sought to reset terms for circuit court judges from 15 years to 14 years and go through a retention election before a term expires.
In other words, voters during the general election would be asked whether a judge should remain on the bench.
According to a 2004 lawsuit in the state’s Court of Appeals, two unaffiliated voters wanted to vote on judicial races during that year’s primary election in St. Mary’s and Anne Arundel counties, respectively. The court ruled those contests are considered “partisan” because candidates are listed on both the Democrat and Republican ballots.
Maryland has a closed primary system, so independent and unaffiliated voters can only vote on local, nonpartisan school board races. For judicial races, the Democrat and Republican parties agree to allow candidates on both ballots.
One main reason most voters view judicial races as nonpartisan stems from a judicial candidate’s political affiliation not noted on the primary and general election ballots. That has been in effect since 1941, when the General Assembly passed a law to remove a candidate’s party affiliation to show “an appearance of nonpartisanship.”
Alexis Branch, 22, a school board candidate running for a District 7 seat in Prince George’s, said political affiliations should be listed for judicial candidates. She expressed such frustration with the sample ballot circulated in the county she posted a red X and the phrase “Fake Sample Ballot” on her Facebook page.
“It speaks to your morals. It speaks to what you believe in,” she said. “A Republican would be more conservative on views, whereas a Democrat might be a little more liberal on views in the court. This is manipulating and altering an election.”
Nonprofit organizations such as The League of Women Voters of Maryland say the judicial race should be strictly nonpartisan.
Nancy Soreng, former president of the league and now a member of its action team, said although party affiliation isn’t noted on the ballot, a judicial candidate must register with one of the two parties “because the ballots in the primary are controlled by the parties.”
Soreng said a vetting process helps choose prospective judges because they are screened by bipartisan groups.
Candidates are interviewed by groups such J. Frankly Bourne Bar Association, whose membership mainly consists of Blacks who live or work in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties.
Other minority and specialty bar associations also interview candidates and provide recommendations to local judicial nomination commissions comprised of lawyers and non-lawyers. The commissions also conduct the same review process and pass on their proposals to the governor to appoint them.
The nominating processes began in 1970 where the majority of judges who run on a slate have been successful. But candidates who are attorneys such as Ademiluyi and Weatherspoon can run independent campaigns.
Soreng said state law must change to eliminate politics in judicial races and take money out of the courtroom.
“The major donors to judicial campaigns are lawyers,” she said. “We have a problem with people raising money from people who may come before them in court.”