When Montgomery County voters go to the polls Nov. 2 to decide how they want to be represented in Washington, they’ll also have the chance to change the shape of local government.
Ballot question C would amend the County Charter to divide the county into nine rather than the current five council districts and elect all nine council members by district rather than the current mix of five district and four at-large members.
Supporters of the measure, including the Montgomery County Civic Federation which brought the initiative to the ballot through a signature drive, say it represents the endpoint of a historic movement toward district-based representation and will result in more representative government. Opponents say that the current system maintains a needed balance between district and county-wide issues in council agendas and that citizens benefit from a structure where five members — a majority of the council — represent the interests of each voter.
Though the county council does not take an official position on ballot initiatives, most of the council members have come out against the change. The exception is Phil Andrews (D-3) who has spoken publicly in support of the move.
Andrews said he supports the measure because Montgomery County has become too large for countywide council districts. The cost of running a countywide campaign he says "effectively screens out many good candidates." About half of funds for at-large candidates come from the development industry, "and candidates who don't share the views of the development industry find it almost impossible to raise the funds necessary to win a seat."
Andrews cites the fact that four out of five of the current district council members beat long-time incumbents to win their seats, and several, including himself, were outspent by their opponents. The districts will bring government closer to the people and reduce the undue influence of the development industry in the county council,” he said. "The public interest is served by more competition."
The all-district structure would not benefit his group’s membership, said Henry Halistock, president of Montgomery County Branch of NAACP.
“It will reduce each voter’s power. Presently every voter in Montgomery County may vote for five council members… that’s the majority of the council. If Question C is adopted we will be able to vote for one-ninth of the council. This will give each voter less influence.”
As for the argument that the all-district system will lead to less expensive, more grassroots-oriented campaigns, Halistock disagrees. “Campaign contributions will still be made by wealthy donors to candidates running in the new districts. It would just be less money.” In any case, he says, “It’s simply untrue that the best funded candidates always win at large. … I feel that Montgomery County’s educated electorate has judged candidates on their merits and not on their wallets.”
Effective government correlates with district representation and at-large representation is disappearing nationwide, says Wayne Goldstein of the Montgomery County Civic Federation, who adds research by the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University to back his claim.
“Montgomery County was ranked as somewhat above average, well behind top-rated Fairfax and Baltimore Counties and only slightly ahead of Prince George’s County, all of which use the district system,” Goldstein wrote in an essay on Question C that included the Maxwell School data.
Peggy Dennis, another Montgomery County Civic Federation activist, says that party politics and antiquated thinking are holding the measure back. “The Democratic Party is so entrenched that they are opposed to any kind of change even if it would result in better civil discourse and better government,” she said. “I am a Democrat and I’m seriously concerned about my party at the local level.”
“One of the things that really angered me was the party hacks that said ‘Why would we want to approve anything that would improve the chances for opposition parties to win seats?’ The Democrats are very good at redistricting to disadvantage other parties and other candidates … so why do they feel threatened by it?” said Dennis, a Potomac resident.
At a Sept. 29 straw vote, members of the Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee voted 121-15 to oppose the measure. But the question drew more heated debate than either of the other ballot initiatives, with eight people speaking in favor of it an eight against.
Still, opposition to the initiative is strong, with groups like the Montgomery County League of Women Voters, the Montgomery County Chapter of the NAACP, The African American Democratic Club and the Democratic Committee taking stands against the change.
“We’re going to fight with all our heart to see that its not passed,” said Halistock of the NAACP. “It’s not in our best interest.”
Many opponents acknowledge that the current system is flawed but say that the current proposal is not the remedy for those flaws.
“I don’t think [supporters of the initiative] are wrong in trying to increase representation. I think they’re wrong in their methodology in doing so,” said Michael Griffiths of the African American Democratic Club
“The whole purpose of the thing is to give you an increased feeling of representation but I think statistics don’t bear that out,” Griffiths said. He noted that no advocates of the change had sought input from his group: “If you want to do something to increase minority representation then you should at least bring in the minorities you’re trying to represent.” Griffiths doesn’t agree with the argument that district-based elections better represent minority populations anyway. “Just because you have small districts that doesn’t mean you’re going to have an easier way to get minorities elected.” In fact, minority voters are worse off he said. “If your district representative is not responsive to you, you have no where to go at that time.”
One of Griffiths’ main concerns is that the ballot initiative does not lay out how the new districts would be drawn. “Without in depth study … we thought it was inappropriate to jump behind something that could have been fools gold for us. … If you don’t know what the districts are going to look like you don’t make that leap of faith.”