Category Archives: electoral systems

Spare Annapolis D.C. Dysfunction

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Today, I am testifying at the House Ways and Mean Committee in favor of a bill sponsored by Chair Sheila Hixson (D-20) and Sen. Jamie Raskin (D-20) to establish a Blue Ribbon Commission on Voting, Openness, Transparency and Equality (VOTE). My opinion piece in today’s Baltimore Sun explains why:

It makes sense to get on the off ramp instead of heading directly into the blockages that plague the federal level. Reforms to the electoral system have the potential to encourage cooperation even as we respect the partisan differences that render our democracy vibrant. Happily, many of these changes can also encourage participation.

Capitol Hill looks like dysfunction junction. Let’s take a look at possible changes that could help prevent Annapolis from following that route.

The Committee for Montgomery, a broad-based alliance of business, labor, education, civic and community-based organizations played a key role in developing the ideas behind this bill.

Reforming MoCo Council Elections

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As previous posts have highlighted (here, here, and here), Democrats dominate Montgomery County elections with vanishingly small hope for Republicans. They don’t even bother to field candidates for a majority of the seats.

While Montgomery Democrats may cherish Republican-free Montgomery, it creates other problems for democratic governance. Relatively few people actually elect the Council. It is difficult to hold officials accountable when there is essentially no viable “out” party. It increases factionalism on the Council and makes it easier for councilmembers to shift positions without consequence.

This post suggests two reform methods, one simple and one more radical. The key to assessing any reform is to examine not just how it affects fairness or representation but also governance. While fairness is great, one needs to keep in mind the impact of changes on other aspects of our democratic system.

The first reform is very straightforward: abolish all of the at-large seats except one and increase the number of districts by three so the Council remains the same size. This change would reduce the ratio of constituents to councilmembers from roughly 200,000 to 125,000, the same as the state legislature, and make it easier for constituents and councilmembers to keep in touch.

The at-large member could be the council chair, eliminating the  jockeying for this visible post. Alternatively, all of the members could be elected from districts and continue to select the council chair from among their membership.

Advantages of this reform include a reduction in the cost of campaigns. Districts would be smaller so candidates would have to spend less money to campaign in them, possibly making it easier for less well-heeled candidates to enter races.

Opponents would argue that it eliminates councilmembers who take the whole county into account. But all councilmembers have their bases of support and three out of four at-large councilmembers currently hail from Silver Spring. Upcounty and West County folks might welcome additional representation in Rockville.

The real disadvantage is that it might leave us in much the same boat as now. It is virtually impossible to draw a Republican district in Montgomery, so we’d still have a single-party council with no representation of the permanent “out” party.

The second reform would address this issue. Voters would cast ballots just as now in the five districts. The votes in these districts would then be aggregated to distribute the remaining four at-large seats such that the overall allocation reflects this total, taking into account the number of district seats won by a party.

An example helps to illustrate. Suppose that the general election results fell on the following lines:

MoCoElectionDemocrats would win all five districts and receive those seats immediately. The allocation of the remaining four seats would occur in a manner designed to produce a proportional distribution among all of the seats.

In this simulated election, Republicans received 26% of the vote. A proportionate allocation would award the Republicans two of the nine total seats (at least based on the Ste. Laguë method of PR which I used here since it is considered very fair). As a result, the Republicans should receive two of the four at-large seats with the others going to the Democrats for a 7-2 Council.

This reform would have several positive consequences. First, it would encourage the Republicans to regularly run candidates for all district seats, increasing the political competition vital to democracy. After all, the Republicans might have garnered a third seat if they had run a candidate in District 3.

Additionally, it encourages all parties to work to increase turnout even in safe seats to make sure that they win as many seats as possible. In short, it eliminates advantages gained through winning seats in low-turnout district elections. This might even augment Montgomery’s influence in statewide races as we increase our relative voter muscle compared to the rest of the State.

This change would also create a majority and minority party in Rockville. Voters could thus reward or punish the performance of each party, increasing accountability, even if the Democrats continue their overall dominance. Parties instead of Democratic factions would help give coherence to Montgomery politics.

Critics would likely contend that it emphasizes party at the expense of candidates. First, let’s be up front and acknowledge that few county residents can identify many of their councilmembers and certainly do not know enough about them to make particularly informed judgments.

Second, candidates would still be very important as each party would want to run its most attractive candidates in order to increase its overall vote. Smart Republicans would want to nominate relative moderates to maximize their vote.

Of course, neither reform seems likely to be adopted. Incumbents love the status quo because, after all, it chose them. And I cannot say that I especially blame them. People in all walks of life like to keep their jobs and systems that work for them.

 

 

 

How Electoral Rules Shape County Council Partisanship

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Maryland counties use a number of different methods to elect their county legislatures (see below for a description of how each county conducts its elections). The rules of the electoral game influence the outcome, as at-large elections facilitate one-party sweeps.

Twelve counties elect their councils entirely at-large throughout the county. The number will decline to eleven when Frederick elects its first charter government this year. Cecil and Garrett have district residency requirements for candidates but still elect them at-large. Cecil also staggers its elections.

Nine of the twelve counties with solely at-large elections have legislatures with members from only one party. In the remaining three, there is only one minority (Democratic) representative. (Of course, Kent has only three commissioners so the minority has to consist of only one commissioner.)

Eight counties elect their councils entirely from single-member districts. Districts can help with compliance with the Voting Rights Act by preventing the submergence of minorities among larger minority populations. Worcester County, for example, has a black district that resulted from voting rights litigation.

Districts also facilitate minority party representation. Only two of the eight counties elected entirely by district have single-party governments. Districts enable minority party representation so long as the minority comprises a majority within one of the districts. Minorities can still fail to win representation if their support is evenly distributed or just too weak, as in Carroll and Prince George’s Counties.

Three counties and Baltimore City elect their legislatures via a mixture of single-member districts and at-large. Baltimore City and Harford elect all councilmembers from districts except the city/county council president. Frederick will adopt Wicomico’s system of five from districts and two at-large when it elects its first charter government this year.

Uniquely, Montgomery elects four at-large in addition to five from districts. In this populous county, at-large councilmembers represent significantly more people than Members of Congress. And even the district councilmembers have roughly 200,000 constituents.

Among counties with mixed systems, heavily Democratic Baltimore City and Montgomery County have entirely Democratic councils. Harford and Wicomico have Republican majority counties with Democratic minorities.

Next Up: Ideas for creating more competition in Montgomery.

ALL ELECTED AT-LARGE

Allegany: three commissioners.

Calvert: five commissioners.

Caroline: three commissioners.

Cecil: five councilmembers. There are five districts and residency requirements but county voters elect all five. Elections are staggered so that the election of two coincides with the presidential election and three with the gubernatorial election.

Charles: five commissioners.

Frederick: five commissioners (through 2010).

Garrett: three commissioners. There are three districts and residency requirements but county voters elect all at-large.

Kent: three commissioners.

Queen Anne’s: five commissioners.

St. Mary’s: five commissioners.

Talbot: five councilmembers.

Washington: five commissioners.

ALL ELECTED FROM DISTRICTS

Anne Arundel: seven councilmembers.

Baltimore County: seven councilmembers.

Carroll: five commissioners.

Dorchester: five councilmembers.

Howard: five councilmembers.

Prince George’s: nine councilmembers.

Somerset: five commissioners.

Worcester: seven commissioners.

MIXED

Baltimore City elects 14 councilmembers from districts and the city council president at-large.

Starting in 2014, Frederick will elect five councilmembers from districts and two at-large.

Harford elects six councilmembers from districts and the council president-large.

Montgomery elects five councilmembers from districts and four at-large.

Wicomico elects five councilmembers from districts and two at-large.