Strong Election Day Turnout in Cecil County, Mail-In Ballots Not Yet Tallied; Initial Results Show Likely Dixon School Board Win

November 9, 2022

Cecil County voters turned out in force for in-person voting on Tuesday (11/8/2022), but the final outcomes of multiple races will not be determined until the completion of the next week and a half of scheduled Board of Elections (BOE) counts of mail-in and provisional ballots. But initial counts in the District 4 school board contest indicate an upset win for Renee Dixon over incumbent William Malesh.

In two County Council races with organized write-in vote campaigns, the mechanics of vote counting showed totals of all write-ins from in-person early voting and Election Day ballots but did not yet allocate any votes to the declared write-in candidates. (Ballot scanners automatically register marked ovals indicating a write-in vote was being cast, but a separate BOE staff review is required to allocate those votes to candidates who have formally qualified under election rules to be counted by name.) But the initial counts indicate that even when write in votes are eventually counted, the uphill challenges to winners of the Republican primary in Districts 2 and 4 are unlikely to succeed.

Five amendments to the county Charter, mostly designed to address problems that have emerged during the first two years of Danielle Hornberger’s term as County Executive and clarify powers of the County Council, were headed to overwhelming approval by voters.

The ballot counts so far give only a partial snapshot of voter sentiment, covering only in person voting on Tuesday and during the more than week-long early voting period The first count of mail-in ballots will be conducted on Thursday 11/10/2022 and the final count, including overseas and military service members ballots, will be conducted on 11/18/2022, at which time the final total of all votes in the county will be certified. The mail-in votes could play a crucial role especially in the school board races.

Election Day voting was steady and strong throughout the day on Tuesday. As of 4 p.m., in person voter turnout was 13,931 with 18 of 19 precincts reporting, according to Doug Walker, the county BOE director. Turnout was particularly strong at the Cecilton, Elk Neck and Perryville polling places, he added.

There were no candidates for local office running as Democrats in this general election. But registered Democrats were nearly a majority of the 7,000 voters who requested mail-in ballots. How many of those ballots were actually returned by mail or placed in drop-off boxes around the county will not be known until the formal count of mail-in votes is conducted.


At stake in this election are three seats on the five-member board. By law, school board candidates run as “nonpartisan” candidates and traditionally candidates have run low budget, self-financed campaigns. But not this year.

Three candidates—Renee Dixon, Justin Vest and Russ Johnson—had major infusions of Republican financial support from Hornberger, County Council vice president Jackie Gregory (R-5) and a new Political Action Committee spending $15,000 on campaign flyers, financed in part by a $6,000 donation from Rep. Andy Harris (R-1) campaign fund. [See the CECIL TIMES detailed report here:

District 4

Renee Luther Dixon, who operates a horse-riding program focused on children and received a lavish, free house and barn from a TV home makeover show, scored a two-to-one vote margin over the incumbent William Malesh, a former county teacher, in results reported on Tuesday. She received a total of 13,871 votes or over 64 percent of the total, while Malesh received 7,229 votes, or 33 percent. Even with upcoming counts of mail-in ballots, Dixon’s lead is likely to hold or expand.

With her expected win of a board seat, Dixon will bring a unique perspective. Responding in writing to a candidate questionnaire from Capitol News Service, Dixon declared that her top concern was “The transgender agenda being pushed upon our children needs to stop. A minority should not be pushing their agenda onto our children which hurts our children and then in turn makes the pharmaceutical companies rich.”

In her political campaign in District 4 , she received $1,500 from Danielle Hornberger, $600 from Gregory; $198 from County Councilor Donna Culberson (R-4), a close Hornberger acolyte; and $500 from the Gregory-led Republican Women’s Club. Vincent Sammons, GOP Central Committee member and multiple online personality partisan gadfly, gave $40, as did Rebecca Hamilton, the Hornberger-supported winner of the GOP primary for the District 2 seat on the County Council.

(In contrast, Malesh was almost entirely self-financed in a low budget and low-profile campaign. He was endorsed by the county’s teacher’s association and its “apple ballot” of endorsed candidates.)


Diana Hawley, currently the president of the school board and a longtime volunteer in local school parent associations, held a solid lead in votes counted so far in District 5. She received 12,560 votes, or over 59 percent of the total. She was endorsed by the county teacher’s association on its “apple ballot.”

Her opponent, Russ Johnson, a real estate agent, received 8,497 votes, or 40 percent.

Hawley became a top target of the Republican political donors and elected officials who financed Johnson’s campaign. (Hawley was primarily self-financed although she did receive an “in kind” donation of Halloween candy, valued at about $200, that she gave out to children at a trunk or treat event.)

Although Johnson said in campaign statements posted online that his top priority is “to get politics out of the schools,” his campaign was almost entirely financed by GOP officials and even last-minute money transfers from another board candidate aligned with the GOP slate. His campaign received $1,500 from County Executive Hornberger’s political campaign fund; $600 from Jackie Gregory’s political campaign account, and $500 from the Cecil County Republican Women’s Club, of which Gregory is the vice president. He was also featured on the glossy flyer paid for by a PAC financed by Andy Harris.

If Hawley sustains her substantial lead in the mail-in and other remaining vote counts, it will assure a majority of non-partisan members on the school board.

District 3—

Joe Ferdinando, who ran a low-profile campaign that cost less than $1,000 according to state election records, received 10,329 votes or 50.7 percent of the votes counted so far. His opponent, Justin Vest, received 9,762 votes or 48 percent.

Ferdinando said he was running a strictly nonpartisan campaign and would not criticize any other candidates. Vest, who homeschools his children, received donations from GOP groups and was featured on the glossy flyer financed by Andy Harris’ PAC donation. Vest’s latest campaign finance report to the state was stamped “preliminary” so the full accounting is not yet clear.


In the County Council races, former County Council President Joyce Bowlsbey and former County Commissioner Phyllis Kilby ran spirited, upstart campaigns as write in candidates against two Hornberger-aligned and financed candidates who won the July Republican primary for Council seats. It was an uphill battle from the start, and Tuesday’s vote counts show that even if they have a massive show of support from not yet counted mail in ballots, the numbers won’t be enough to overtake their opponents.

In District 2, which Bowlsbey represented as a Republican for six years before retiring from the post, political newcomer and Republican primary winner Rebecca Hamilton received 18,738 votes or 83 percent. The write-in vote was 3,638 or 16 percent.

In District 4, former County Commissioner Phyllis Kilby ran as an “unaffiliated” independent write-in candidate against Donna Culberson, a Republican who was appointed last year to fill a vacancy in District 4 and won the GOP primary this year. Tuesday’s vote count showed Culberson with 18,009 votes or 80 percent. The write-in count was 4,484 votes or 19.9 percent.

The write in campaigns, waged on a shoestring budget and with limited time to get their messages out to the public, nevertheless sent a shot across the bow of Danielle Hornberger and Jackie Gregory, who are both up for re-election in 2024. Gregory in particular was a loud and aggressive attack dog against any candidate running against her chosen few.

The write in candidates waged issue-oriented campaigns, designed to be a stark contrast to the sleazy attack mailers, financed by and through Del. Kevin Hornberger, Danielle’s spouse, along with money channeled through Andy Harris’s campaign account in this year’s GOP primary.

And if there was any poetic justice in the new vote counts, it was Councilor Al Miller (R-3) coasting to re-election on Tuesday with no opposing candidate on the ballot. He was a chief target of the Hornbergers and Gregory in the primary, in which they circulated crude, juvenile cartoons insulting Miller personally.

Miller, a leader in local agriculture groups whose family has farmed in the county for multiple generations, is widely expected to challenge Hornberger for County Executive in 2024.

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