Montgomery County has been plagued by maladies for decades: choked roads, no jobs, a rickety tax base relying almost entirely on homeowners, under-served neighborhoods—just to name a few. Residents in Clarksburg travel two hours one way to get to their jobs in Northern Virginia. Prince George’s County, with a population smaller than MoCo’s, is the number one job generator in Maryland. According to the rating service Niche.com, Howard County’s school system is ranked higher than MoCo’s and at lower cost per pupil. What is the reason for all this decay?
The reason is a small group of voters is able to dictate to the entire County Council what to do, in particular adopting policies and budgets that favor them and nobody else. How does this happen?
Montgomery County’s County Council is comprised of nine members: five elected from single-member districts and four elected at-large. This means the County Council has a very powerful multi-member, at-large coalition. With at-large voting, a group of voters elects all of the at-large members, leaving everyone else without any representation. In Montgomery County the voter exclusion is particularly invidious: a small minority of voters, 30% but probably less, blocks the interests of everyone else.
Center and left justices on the US Supreme Court have routinely denounced multi-member at-large representation as a “right to cast a meaningless ballot” (Thurgood Marshall). Civil rights activists compare it to “literacy tests” (John Lewis). Everyone votes for the at-large contingent on the County Council, but very few people actually elect them.
That privileged group of voters has Metro stops, Purple Line stops, roads, high-performing schools, and easy access to DC where the jobs are. Everyone else pays for that infrastructure without much of a chance to use it. The time for reform has come.
This election season MoCo’s voters have a chance to reclaim their fair and equal voting rights. Question D, sponsored by Nine Districts for MoCo, replaces the at-large representatives with district representatives. This referendum seeks to spread the decision-making evenly around the county without increasing the council’s size or budget.
Question C, sponsored by the County Council, retains the exclusionary at-large representation and even increases the size of the council from nine members to 11—at a time when businesses are closing, workers are being laid off, and evictions are at stay but still a threat. The council approved this measure in an emergency “special session” that required suspending its own long-standing rules for public input. There are parts of the world where things like this happen, and Montgomery County is one of them.
If both questions pass, they both fail. Nine Districts believes that is the council members’ intent, along with the small group of voters that elects all of them.
If you spend 30 minutes to get to a Metro stop, if your bus service is unreliable, if your schools are decrepit or unsafe, if you are trapped on the commute over the American Legion Bridge, keep one thing in mind: the small group of voters who elect all the at-larges don’t have those problems.
This situation will come to an end in November, but doing so requires your participation.
Vote AGAINST Question C, the County Council’s spoiler referendum
Vote FOR Question D, the Nine Districts referendum.
Mark Lautman is the treasurer of ballot committee Nine Districts for MoCo.