2020 | Opinion

Opinion: At-large County Council seats make minority representation more likely

All-district structure could lead to too much parochialism

Steve Lawrence’s Oct. 24 op-ed (At-large representation a tool to squelch minority voices) fundamentally misunderstands experience and demographic realities of Montgomery County.

Close analysis of Ballot Questions C (a County Council with seven seats by districts and four at large) and D (nine seats, all by districts) reveals that the Question C approach is more likely to result in a diverse council. 

The County Council/county executive form of local government was established in 1968.

Initially, the council was made up of seven members, all of whom were elected at large. At that time, about a half-million people lived in the county.

By 1986, the county’s population had grown to about two-thirds of a million, leading to a decision by the voters to increase the size of the council. It grew to nine members — four of whom were elected at-large, with five elected by the voters of particular districts.

The county’s population is now nearly 1.1 million. Currently, each district member represents about 212,000 people.

Question C, proposed by the County Council, recognizes the growth of the county by increasing the size of the council to 11 by adding two district seats. Under this proposal, each district member would represent about 151,000 people.

Question D, proposed by a petition, would eliminate the at-large seats and create a council of nine districts, each representing about 118,000 people.

While Mr. Lawrence cites situations in rural and southern locales where at-large structures had the purpose and impact of discriminating against minorities, the circumstances in Montgomery County are entirely different.

At-large seats do tend to dilute minority group representation in many places, but that happens only when minorities would make up majorities in discrete districts. Here, particular minorities have not (and likely would not) dominate districts, even if we go to nine.

More significantly, such dilution has not been the actual experience in Montgomery County in the decades since 1986, when we adopted the mixed at-large/district seat system. Indeed, our history demonstrates that having at-large seats has made it more likely that we have minority representation on the council.

Prior to his election as county executive in 2006, 2010, and 2014, Ike Leggett was first elected to the County Council as an at-large member in 1986, 1990, 1994 and 1998.

Currently, we have two African Americans and two Hispanics on the Council — and one of each is an at-large member (Will Jawando and Gabe Albornoz).

This outlet, I suggest, makes it more likely that people will not vote in their districts based principally on ethnicity, since having the at-large cohorts provides the opportunity for the voters to “balance” the council. That certainly has been our experience since the at-large/district hybrid system was instituted several decades ago.

It is also useful to remember that the only openly LGBTQ+ member of the council, Evan Glass, is an at-large member, and the current District 2 and 4 members, Craig Rice and Nancy Navarro, are members of minority groups.

Other factors counsel in favor of Question C and against Question D.

Under Question D, a nine single-member district council with no at-large members could lead to too much parochialism and less diversity. Depending on how the lines are drawn, it could result in decisions not supported by most people in the county.

Question C, on the other hand, strikes a balance by adding two more district seats, while at the same time keeping the four at-large seats, thus (1) giving people other members to turn to if their district member is not responsive and (2) assuring that, in big-picture matters, the council is in sync with the majority of voters countywide.

Remember that in 2018, each of the at-large winners got 75% of the vote.

David S. Fishback, a retired Department of Justice attorney, lives in Olney and has been active in local Montgomery County issues since 1984.

***

Editor’s note: Bethesda Beat encourages readers to send us their thoughts about local topics we have covered for consideration as an op-ed piece. Email them to editorial@bethesdamagazine.com. Here are our guidelines. We require a name and hometown for publication. We also require a phone number (not for publication) for us to verify who wrote the piece. Please provide a source for any facts in your piece that were not part of our coverage; if they can’t be verified, they likely will be omitted.