Adam's Analysis

Oct. 16, 2020, 3:38 p.m. | By Adam Chazan | 3 years, 8 months ago

An Opinion

Questions C and D on this year’s ballot have sparked vigorous debate in Montgomery County, as the looming census report and redistricting are amplifying concerns about fair representation on the county council. 

If approved, these proposals would change the structure of the county council. Ballot Question D will eliminate at-large seats on the council, dividing the county into nine individual districts. Question C, which is backed by the council, will maintain the at-large representatives and expand the council to a total of 11 members by adding 2 district seats.  

The Silver Chips Voter Guide on page A6 includes more information about the ballot measures.

At the heart of the proposals are two distinct concerns of underrepresentation. Councilmember Evan Glass’s proposal in Question C seeks to account for the county’s population growth to ensure that districts in Montgomery County are aligned in size with other nearby counties. “We've had a 50 percent increase in our population over the last 30 years, which warrants an expansion of our democracy and an increase in our representation,” Glass said in an interview with Silver Chips.

Nine Districts for MoCo, the organization behind Question D, believes that the at-large representatives on the council have failed to consider the concerns of upcounty residents. “Their job is to give a countywide perspective of what's going on in the county. And they're not able to do that,” Kimblyn Persaud, chair of Nine Districts for MoCo, said. 

While Glass’s proposal would dilute the power of at-large representatives on the council—they would make up four of 11 total seats instead of four of nine—Nine Districts for MoCo said that this does not go far enough to check the power of at-large representatives.

Much of the ongoing discussion surrounds the value of the at-large seat. Proponents of Question D believe that the election is structured so that the at-large seats will never represent their interests and therefore favor their elimination. 

It is essential to understand that there have long been significant ideological divisions based on geography in Montgomery County. The at-large seat is a mechanism to bridge these divides and seek to address issues with a holistic view.

In a blog published in The Seventh State, former County Executive Ike Leggett explained the value of an at-large representative. “We have a mixed system—four at-large seats and five geographical district seats,” he wrote. “This mix helps ensure local representation, plus it builds in and strengthens an overall County perspective.”

Glass, an at-large member, also recognizes his role in representing a countywide perspective. “Having a hybrid system as we do with districts and at-large… allows different council members to look at their local parochial issue, and others to look at it from a countywide issue,” he said. “That's the balance that we should strive for in government.”

This would not be the first time that the county that the council’s structure has been changed. The current council format was adopted in 1990 after a 1986 ballot measure proposed the expansion of the council by two seats. At the time, each district had roughly 150,000 residents. 

Since then, Montgomery County’s population has grown significantly. Now, each district representative is responsible for over 210,000 constituents.

Critics of Glass’s proposal note each additional seat on the council would incur $550,000 of annual payroll and operative costs, an important concern for taxpayers as the county faces an economic downturn. Glass argues that while these figures may seem daunting, they are necessary. “We have to invest in our democracy,” he said. 

Glass is right. We do need to continually support our democracy, and an investment in the county council is long overdue. The timing may be unfortunate and the costs steep, but the opportunity to expand the council is fleeting. 

Question D misses the mark. Rather than eliminating at-large seats, which provide an important countywide perspective, we should seek to improve the process of electing them in order to ensure that all members of the county feel that their vote matters.

It is possible that both ballot measures will fail. In a piece about the county-level ballot measures, The Washington Post Editorial Board opined that neither proposal was preferable to the status quo. But it is this sentiment that is perhaps the most dangerous. There are real issues at play, and while neither proposal is ideal, they are at least attempting to improve a flawed system.

Voting no on both proposals must come with the understanding that these issues must be addressed in another form.

Ranked-choice voting, where voters would rank at-large candidates by preference on their ballots, is one such alternative. Both Nine Districts for MoCo and Councilmember Glass expressed their support for its implementation in Montgomery County. Ranked-choice voting would reward candidates with broader, more diverse coalitions rather than candidates appealing to a smaller, more enthusiastic base.

Mark Lautman, Nine Districts for MoCo’s treasurer, said that ranked-choice voting for at-large candidates would address his concerns that a vocal group in one area of the county has disproportionate influence over the outcome of elections. “If the council would move towards ranked-choice, [Nine Districts for MoCo] would shut down the same day.” 

Glass supports ranked-choice voting as well, revealing that he is “the only member of the county council to go to Annapolis and testify in support of ranked-choice voting, I absolutely think that we should have ranked-choice voting.”

Perhaps that would be a good place to start.

Last updated: Nov. 25, 2020, 12:16 p.m.

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