Opinion: Eliminate at-large council seats, which reward concentrated power
Nine-district structure proposed in ballot Question D furthers democracy
Much has been said, and much is at stake, regarding Montgomery County Questions C and D on the general election ballot and the County Council’s at-large contingent.
A significant portion of the discussion has digressed into ancillary issues, such as the county’s population growth or that Question D is a front for Republicans.
I’m taking this opportunity to provide clarity on the main issue before the voters: the voter dilution inherent in Montgomery County’s at-large representation.
Montgomery County’s council has nine members — five district representatives and four at-large. That makes Montgomery County a multi-member at-large jurisdiction.
Of America’s 50 most populous counties, 41 have no at-large representation at all and only two have at least four at-large representatives.
The fundamental flaw with multi-member at-large jurisdictions is that a plurality, or sometimes a majority, elects all of the at-large representatives, leaving other voters with no representation.
Suppose Montgomery County establishes a parliament of 100 seats using its at-large voting. Two parties are vying for control — the Upcounty Party and the Downcounty Party.
The Downcounty Party receives 70% of the vote, so it wins all 100 seats. The Upcounty Party, winning 30% of the vote, is denied any seats. This is the theoretical problem with our at-large elections.
In practice, in Montgomery County, the situation is particularly invidious. As prominent blogger Adam Pagnucco notes, our elections are decided by closed Democratic primaries.
In the bruising 2018 Democratic primary, Hans Riemer received the most votes (54,584) among at-large council candidates, which was only 12.2% of the votes cast. (The other three winning candidates received fewer.)
There were roughly 644,000 registered voters in the county at the time.
Given his win in the primary, Riemer was assured a win in the general election. This demonstrates the severe flaw with at-large elections: a plurality (in this case, only 12%) in a primary determined the outcome of an at-large council member’s election.
This is what the Supreme Court calls voter dilution.
Supreme Court justices from the center and left (Ginsburg, Marshall, Warren, O’Connor, Stewart, etc.) had nothing good to say about multimember at-large representation, regardless of whether the council is all or partially at-large.
Congressman John Lewis called at-large representation a new form of literacy tests. Harvey Milk and his LGBT constituency led a successful 1976 referendum to replace at-large with district representation in San Francisco.
As preeminent voting rights activist George Pillsbury notes, “No voting method has been subject to more litigation for its discriminatory impact on local elections.” In no case did a judge permit a jurisdiction found guilty of violating the Voting Rights Act to conduct hybrid district/at-large elections.
The upshot of Montgomery County’s voter dilution is painfully visible. For one example, all of the Red and Purple line stations (24 stations in all) are downcounty, while the residents between Clarksburg and Shady Grove have watched their promised Mid-County Connector languish in bureaucratic jail for well over a decade.
This is the only matter at hand regarding Question D — putting an end to dilution in which everyone votes for the at-large representatives, but only a small group of voters always elects all of them.
Now, let’s address the peripheral issues.
Supporters of Question C contend that adding two seats to the County Council reflects how the county’s population has grown.
Other counties in the region have grown, as well, and they are not adding seats. For example, Fairfax County, considered by many to be a much more successful jurisdiction than Montgomery County, has not enlarged its council. Regardless, Question C does not mitigate the at-large voter dilution.
Our opposition says Nine Districts is a front for Republicans. That’s nonsense. We are a nonpartisan group with broad support throughout the county. Our petition signatures and donations prove that.
Council Member Evan Glass says that he has been holding discussions about changing the council’s structure since 2018 or before, but there is no public record to this effect. Since he talked to Nine Districts advocates about our effort in August 2019, he has never mentioned the council’s composition in his newsletters.
On the contrary, in a hastily convened council discussion, with suspended rules of procedure and no public input, Glass proposed a referendum — Question C on your ballot.
The prevailing legal opinion is that should both C and D pass, they both fail (although, depending on the results, litigation is also a possibility). This is why Nine Districts for MoCo, its supporters and opponents realize Question C is nothing more than a spoiler referendum.
Regarding diversity, we are all proud of the many new and diverse faces on the council. But who is participating in that diversity? Does the presence of one demographic or another mean everyone is represented?
When the council votes unanimously over 95% of the time, when certain groups are favored over others with budget and policy, and when 30% of the voters can elect 100% of the at-large representatives, the answer is no.
This November, Montgomery County reclaims its democracy. Vote against Question C. Vote for Question D.
Mark Lautman of Rockville is the treasurer for Nine Districts for MoCo.
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