At-large representation in Montgomery County squelches minority voices

Opinion: At-large representation a tool to squelch minority voices

Justice Department, courts have found structure to be discriminatory

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In the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the Department of Justice (DOJ) ruled against at-large representation because it is a way to dilute and circumvent minority populations during voting.

In the 2018 Montgomery County election, isn’t it interesting that so many downcounty residents were elected to the County Council? Is it possible that by having four at-large candidates, minority voters and their votes were diluted, similar to what the DOJ has often ruled against?

Our constitution did not define a voting system. Many states initially tried the at-large method, then changed to district elections to ensure better representation.

After the Civil War, Maryland and other southern states used at-large positions effectively against Blacks and other minorities. Montgomery County is now using this against philosophical minorities and upcounty residents.

Having at-large representatives can complement the gerrymandering of districts. Poolesville is lumped in with some of downcounty versus upcounty, a classic gerrymandered move (see map).

Districts are ill defined and larger than needed since four of the nine County Council members are at-large versus focused on a given area.

It has morphed from a hundred years ago, but Montgomery County is using this effectively in silencing a minority of our residents to unbalance our County Council representation.

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights released “The Persistent Challenge of Voting Discrimination,” highlighting the challenges of minority discrimination. The 150-page report often cites instances of at-large elections that have led to the dilution of the minority vote.

This includes numerous cases in which the DOJ and the federal courts have found at-large voting districts to be racially discriminatory under the Voting Rights Act by utilizing at-large representative voting systems.

  • In 2002, the DOJ blocked plans by Freeport, Texas, to stop electing city council members by single-member districts and move to all at-large seats. 
  • In 2007, Fayetteville, N.C., proposed changing the method of city council elections from nine to six single-member districts. The three other positions would be filled by the top vote-getters in at-large elections. The DOJ objected, noting that the change would disadvantage Black voters. The city continues to elect its nine council members via single-member districts today.
  • In 2008, after the DOJ filed a complaint stating that the at-large method of electing school board members in Georgetown County, S.C., diluted the voting strength of Black residents, the county agreed to adopt an election system with seven single-member and two at-large seats. 
  • In 2009, the DOJ filed a complaint against the town of Lake Park in Florida’s Palm Beach County, over its at-large system of electing commissioners. That same year, the town adopted a fairer system known as a limited voting plan, in which all four commission seats are up for election at the same time and voters are limited to casting ballots for only one candidate. The person receiving the highest number of votes is elected to the town commission for a three-year term. 
  • In 2013, a federal court struck down the at-large system for electing the boards of commissioners and education in Fayette County, Ga. While Black residents make up 20 percent of the county and consistently vote together, no Black candidate had ever been elected to either board at that point in the county’s 191 years of existence. The court ordered the county to adopt a district voting plan instead. 

I am a registered Democrat and a long-time Blue Dog conservative at heart. I see Montgomery County biases and say, hey, how come there isn’t a single conservative voice on the council, whether Democrat, independent or Republican?

By having almost half of our representatives elected at-large, the county broadens, thus dilutes, our votes across the districts. We don’t need more representatives. We need smaller districts that have elected individuals who are focused every day and can be held accountable to their constituents.

Similar to the Georgia example and others above, no Montgomery County conservatives are elected, even though they make up well over 20% of voting residents. With four at-large positions, our districts are too large and the areas are not accurately represented. 

Does having Poolesville with Bethesda, Germantown with Damascus, Wheaton with Laytonsville make sense?  Imagine if we had four more districts. We probably would have more than one woman and clearly would have representatives spread more evenly across the county.

The county utilizes strategies from years past in controlling its minority. In this case, it’s not race but discriminating against a philosophy of life. Times have changed and we need to adjust.

Let’s stop the inequality of at-large representation. Vote yes on Question D (nine district council seats) and no on the County Council’s poison pill, Question C (seven district council seats, plus four at-large). 

Steve Lawrence lives in the North Potomac area.

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