Thursday, October 27, 2022

Term Limits and Informed Consent in Politics

View our Fact Sheet on Baltimore City question K

Recently the concept of informed consent, primarily used in the medical field to ensure patients are able to exercise the human right of bodily integrity and make well-informed decisions about their own health care, has expanded into conversations on political and social issues. Informed consent, at its most fundamental, demands a patient fully understands the nature of the care being offered, the possible risks and benefits involved, any alternatives and their risks/benefits, and being sufficiently educated to make those determinations.

In politics and policy work, the same basic concepts should be applied. Voters, for example, should fully know the nature of who or what they are voting for. While the Maryland Poor People’s Campaign cannot recommend a vote; either for or against a particular candidate nor a ballot measure. We do believe that voter support is recommended. They should know the likely risks and benefits of voting for or against a particular candidate or ballot measure, and they should be aware of the context and broader implications of the direction they vote.

In the upcoming November 8 General Election, Baltimore City voters will be given an option to approve or reject an amendment to the city’s charter, via question K, that would limit elected officials to two terms (8 years) within a 12 year period, starting with those elected in 2024. While support for term limits often crosses lines of party and political ideology, few Baltimore City residents are aware how this question came to appear on the ballot.

Julian Sinclair Smith, Chairman, Sinclair Broadcasting Group (headquartered in Cockeysville in Baltimore County) paid $385,000 to People for Elected Accountability & Civic Engagement, an organization created for this purpose. Sinclair Broadcasting operates just under 200 television stations making up over 40% of the US local TV news market, including WBFF-TV Baltimore. During the collection of petition signatures, WBFF-TV (Fox 45) News frequently reported on the idea of recalling Mayor Brandon Scott.

The question becomes, why would Smith and Sinclair Broadcasting want to enact term limits in Baltimore City or drive the narrative of a mayoral recall? A 2019 study published in the American Political Science Review found that "stations bought by Sinclair … move the ideological tone of coverage in a conservative direction relative to other stations operating in the same market." In 2016, Smith notably met with former President Donald J. Trump, telling the future president, "We are here to deliver your message.” In the years since, this is most commonly heard in “must-run” segments, content all Sinclair-owned local stations are forced to air during prime viewing times.

If informed consent is applied to ballot question K, voters have the right to know exactly what they are saying “yes” to. They should be given a chance to weigh the possible risks and benefits of term limits on elected city officials and those of the alternatives to the term limits question K would enact. Most importantly, voting residents have the right to know who exactly created, funded, and supported this initiative.

Accurate, timely, and unbiased journalism is important in a functional democracy. But inaccurate, manipulative, and politically-biased reporting harms us nationally and locally. If term limits would benefit Baltimore City residents, local organizations who advocate for structural justice and help poor and low-wealth residents should be the ones to initiate, define, and champion that effort.

Linnell Fall
Tri-Chair of the Maryland Poor People’s Campaign