Teachers Say Union Election Is Undemocratic

This story has been updated.

In a stunning victory, teacher and longtime social justice activist Diamonté Brown defeated incumbent Baltimore Teachers Union President Marietta English by a vote of 901-839, according to preliminary election results. “I thank everyone that voted for me and I promise to work every day to engage more members and take action based on members’ concerns and needs,” Brown said.

The election is the latest chapter in a wave of grassroots-powered challengers overcoming veteran officeholders, such as New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s defeat of 10-term incumbent Joe Crowley and State Senator Mary Washington defeating Joan Carter Conway.

For her part, English refused to concede, citing “egregious elections violations.”

But numerous union members said the voting irregularities heavily favored English’s incumbent slate, and as news of this spread around the city on Wednesday, it may have motivated more teachers to go to the polls. A union spokesperson referred all election-related questions to Tom Frasier, Elections and Nominations Co-chair. As of 10:30PM Fraiser has yet to respond to a request for a comment or interview.

Election observer Matthew Cipollone says he was forced to leave the election site at Edmonson/Westside High by an election judge and an Elections USA Inc. employee before voting was completed or ballots were tallied, contravening Department of Labor election laws. “The right to observe encompasses all phases of the counting and tallying process.”

Educators’ primary complaint was that the ballot is confusing. Unlike traditional election ballots, the first screen that appears on the voting machines gives you the option of voting for the incumbent Marietta English slate, but does not initially inform the voter that the incumbents are not running unopposed. To vote for other candidates, you have to first hit “next.” The next screen says “You did not select any party. Do you want to exit this screen?” You must hit “Yes” at this screen to be able to vote for individual candidates. There is no option to vote for the Union We Deserve slate; rather, each candidate must be voted for individually.

Teachers also complained that party affiliations are not included with candidate names.  

“It’s absolutely nuts that you can click one button to vote the whole English slate but have to individually select members of the Union We Deserve,” said Martina Mileto Vize, who teaches science at Roland Park Elementary.

The Baltimore Teachers Union represents more than 7,000 teachers, paraprofessionals, and school-related personnel, according to the union website, but the elections have historically had low turnout.  

“I can’t believe there was a situation it’s made to appear that there’s nothing else to vote for other than the Marietta English slate,” said 20-year veteran educator Patrick Daniels, who teaches English and speech at Baltimore City College High School. “This was shocking to me,” he said.

“I have a masters degree so I can solve problems—but it was tricky for even me to navigate,” said Stephanie Jones, a second grade teacher at Medfield Heights.

Jones initially selected the English slate by accident and then had to go back and re-select her preferences. Jones also said she was told they were not allowed to bring information regarding dozens of candidates running for office.

“I don’t know who can memorize 74 names,” she said.  

Elections USA designed the ballot, and this is not the first time an Elections USA ballot has caused controversy in a Baltimore Teachers Union election. The 2004 union election was also marred by allegations that electronic voting machines favored the incumbent candidates. The Real News sent multiple requests for comments to Elections USA but have not received a response.

Voting “didn’t feel transparent or ethical,” said Commodore Johns Rogers Pre-K teacher Berol Dewdney. “I appreciate what the union has done, but my impression of the process is that it wasn’t built to equitably serve anyone who is a member of the union,” she said.

Teachers also complained of the limited window to vote (7:30 AM-5:30 PM), few polling places, and long voting lines. Dewdney said her name was not on the electronic system but did appear on paper rolls, which took additional time. Even an extra ten minutes as a teacher means “you are late to get back to your kids—planning or lunch time,” she said.

We observed one Baltimore union member being turned away for arriving just moments after the polls closed at 5:31 PM.

Kelly Durkin, a teacher at Hampstead Hill Academy, also was frustrated by the election ballot.

“If they wanted a fair election it would seem to me that voting shouldn’t be so hard,” Durkin said. She wanted to voice her concerns and was referred to Fraiser, the Elections and Nominations Co-chair.

Durkin was told Fraiser was not available and she had to reach out to Elections USA.

“[I] was told very condescendingly that I need to complain to Elections USA because they designed the ballot,” Durkin said. “I’ve left them a message on the number I found online, but am waiting on a call back from BTU with the best number to use.”

Supporters of incumbent union leadership declined to speak on camera. Asked about concerns some had with the ballots, one responded “How are the ballots set up wrong?” before walking away. Another said “We have been doing this since time immemorial.”

Trisha Van Wagner, a teacher at Digital Harbor, also expressed confusion at how the ballot was set up and shared the sentiment the system was rigged in the favor of the incumbents. She was one of the last to vote at Dallas Nicholas Elementary. She biked over after jury duty, which let out after 5:00 PM.

Eve Purpura, a teacher at Southwest Baltimore Charter, described “absolute shenanigans” at the Edmonson/Westside voting center. “All the examples for how to vote were of examples of the English slate,” she told The Real News.

Purpura said she observed a worker was handing out slips of paper that said “Vote English slate option” inside the polling place. Other teachers were encouraging voters to support the incumbent English slate. A poll worker was instructing people to vote “English” then announcing how people voted.

As of 10:30 PM we have not received a response from the Baltimore Teachers Union or Elections USA, Inc.

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Jaisal is currently the Democracy Initiative Manager at the Solutions Journalism Network and is a former TRNN host, producer, and reporter. He mainly grew up in the Baltimore area and studied modern history at the University of Maryland, College Park. Before joining TRNN, he contributed print, radio, and TV reports to Free Speech Radio News, Democracy Now! and The Indypendent. Jaisal's mother has taught in the Baltimore City Public School system for the past 25 years. Follow him on Twitter @jaisalnoor.