This year’s term limits vote is the hot local topic of debate in Montgomery County. Or it would be, if either the pro or anti-term limits campaigns had any money to broadcast their message. Voters will largely have to decide for themselves whether they want term limits for the County Executive and County Council.
Political scientists tend to oppose term limits as anti-democratic. The exception is that presidential term limits often seen as preventing an unhealthy concentration of power. In emerging democracies, presidential term limits are increasingly seen as a good means to promote the rotation of power.
So why are so many Montgomery County voters ready to approve term limits that anti-democratically limit their own rights to reelect people to public office?
A key reason is that many people don’t feel that they have much say over their government. This isn’t just hot air. Unless you vote in the critical Democratic primary that effectively decides elections for all partisan offices, you don’t.
Consider that the Census estimated Montgomery’s voting-age population at 788,043. (Note: this figure includes non-citizens, so it is an inflated estimate of the potential voters.) Among the eligible population, 630,355 were registered voters including 354,078 registered Democrats at the time of the 2014 primary elections.
Only 88,007 people participated in the hotly contested Democratic primary for County Executive. That’s just 11% of the voting-age population, 14% of registered votes, and 25% of registered Democrats. It’s also just 33% of 2014 general election voters, and 19% of 2012 general election voters.
Moreover, the Democratic primary selectorate is skewed heavily toward the more Democratic areas of the County. It’s no accident that so many councilmembers live very close together in the southeastern corner of the County–and most people never cast a vote in the key election to choose them.
Beyond the overwhelming strength of the Democrats, Republicans offer very weak alternatives. As a result, the general election, held in the lower turnout midterm election, feels more like a kabuki ritual even if the outcome accurately ratifies the preference of the voters for Democratic over Republican nominees.
The great advantage of term limits compared to the status quo is that every voter can imagine that the new Council will be more responsive to whatever their political bent–even though some of the major dreams advocated are contradictory.
Robin Ficker touts lower taxes as County unions envision a Council willing to raise their pay higher. Civic associations imagine a Council less in thrall to developers while Chamber dreams of a more business friendly Council.
These claims cannot all be true but that doesn’t prevent voters from comparing their fantasy government to the much less glamorous reality. As the same people will choose new councilmembers by the same process, change may be more elusive than imagined.