Voters in Montgomery County are already casting their ballots for president and Congress, but there is one question all the way down the ballot that will also have significant impacts on their lives. The not-so-simple question is: How do we modernize the County Council to reflect our growth and diversity?
The current makeup of the legislative branch of Maryland’s largest jurisdiction has nine council members — five elected by voters within each district and four at-large members elected by the entire county.
Over the last 30 years since this structure was adopted, the county’s population has grown by close to 50%. This resulted in districts with more people than the regional average and some communities feeling underrepresented.
The best way to update and modernize our system is by adding two district seats to the County Council, increasing the total number of members to 11.
If approved by the voters, Question C would add two new seats, allowing residents to be better served with smaller districts while also maintaining their ability to vote for five members of the council — their district council member and the four at-large.
Another option for voters is Question D, which would eliminate the at-large seats and create nine separate districts. On the surface, nine districts promise increased representation, but in reality, it strips every resident of their voting power.
The premise of the nine districts initiative is that the current council members are not geographically diverse.
I agree that this has been an ongoing concern for many since the council structure was adopted in 1990. Even with the increased population growth in the upcounty, since 2006, all four at-large seats have been filled by council members who have lived south and east of Rockville.
No one is arguing that more of the county needs more representation. What I disagree with is the solution.
The unique design of the current structure provides every eligible voter in Montgomery County five votes for County Council, regardless of where residents live.
As portions of county continue to grow, one might expect a shift in political power towards those areas. The only problem is that those areas, notably the upcounty area north of Gaithersburg, don’t vote in large numbers.
For better or worse, Montgomery County’s local elections are decided in the Democratic primary election. If voters don’t vote in the primary, they don’t have a voice in electing who will run the government.
In looking at the data from the 2018 Democratic primary, voter turnout in Montgomery County was 35%, which is already shockingly low, with turnout in the upcounty area at an even more appalling 28%.
Looking solely at registered Democratic voters, upcounty’s District 2 lagged behind the rest of the county by 7 percentage points and significantly fell short of Bethesda/Potomac by 17 points.
The simple point is that voting matters. Ballot Question D is promising equal representation, but the numbers don’t add up.
We don’t know where the additional districts would be and won’t until after a redistricting commission is formed based on the 2020 Census data. The upcounty area would most certainly get one more designated seat, but so would Bethesda and Silver Spring. The shift of power will not change.
The answer to the lack of geographic representation is not to eliminate at-large members. The answer is to do everything in our power to increase voter participation in the upcounty area.
If we’ve learned anything from the past four years, elections have consequences. The upcounty area has the opportunity to make a difference in local elections. We simply need to vote.
Marilyn Balcombe is the co-chair of Ballot Committee Residents for More Representation and a 25-year resident of Germantown. She is president and CEO of the Gaithersburg-Germantown Chamber of Commerce, although the views expressed here are her own.
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