The following letter by Mark Cheater and me was published 1/18/24 in the Greenbelt News Review. Here it includes a correction suggested by the editor.
Title: “Charter Fixes Needed for Council Elections
The tragic loss of Councilmember Ric Gordon has highlighted problems in Greenbelt’s charter that need to be fixed. These fixes would respond to legitimate complaints about the lack of representation on City Council, and would reduce areas of friction between the Council and the public.
1) The process for filling empty Council seats should be specified clearly, with a timeline and process for citizen input.
2) The loss of Franklin Park’s only Council member has raised demands that Gordon’s replacement live there, and other complaints about unequal geographic representation now and in the past resulting from Greenbelt’s at-large voting system. The obvious way to ensure such geographic representation is to create wards or “single-member districts,” with parts of Greenbelt having their own Councilmembers. Other problems with at-large voting include an unfair advantage for incumbents, lower voter turn-out, and discrimination against people of color. In 2008 Greenbelt was targeted by the NAACP, ACLU and the U.S. DOJ for having an all-white Council despite Blacks comprising 38% of the population. Greenbelt responded by adding two seats, which happened to result in the election of the Council’s first Black person (Emmett Jordan) but did not solve the problem.
3) Our mayor is selected not directly by voters but by the Councilmembers, who rely on the tradition of choosing the member elected with the most votes. The duties of mayor are unique – as chair of Council meetings and as spokesperson for the city – and require that voters choose the appropriate person for that job, as is the common practice elsewhere.
4) Ranked-choice voting–where voters rank candidates from most- to least-preferred– should also be considered as a way to help voters elect the candidates they indeed prefer.
Learn More Here
This post expands on the 4 points in our letter. It’s decidedly pro-change, but I welcome links to more information on these topics, even if they support the status quo. Especially helpful would be data comparing similar size cities that use different voting systems.
1. Specify how to Replace Councilmembers
Choosing a replacement for Ric Gordon on the Council has proven to be a big no-win mess for Councilmembers (no matter who they choose, people will be upset). Because currently there’s no guidance as to how to proceed, former Mayor J Davis urged the Council to “Change the charter!” This is a no-brainer and may be tackled soon, but these other related changes should be considered as part of that process.
2. Use Ranked-Choice Voting
Ranked-choice voting is “The fastest-growing nonpartisan voting reform in the nation,” according to Fairvote.org. According to this map, it’s currently used locally in Takoma Park and Arlington elections. This FairVote video explains how RCV works.
The New York Times Editorial Board has this to say: “There is a straightforward and elegant solution: ranked-choice voting, also known as instant-runoff voting. Already in use all over the world and in cities and towns across the United States, it’s a popular and proven way of electing leaders who are — what a radical notion! — actually supported by most voters. It is effective in any multi-candidate race, but it’s ideal for making sense of a large and fractured pool of candidates.”
Advantages: (from FairVote)
- With RCV, voters can sincerely rank candidates in order of preference. Voters know that if their first choice doesn’t win, their vote automatically counts for their next choice instead. This frees voters from worrying about how others will vote and which candidates are more or less likely to win. Candidates can compete without fear of “splitting the vote” with like-minded individuals. More choice, less “strategic” voting. RCV reduces problems like vote-splitting, so-called “spoiler” candidates and unrepresentative outcomes that can arise when more than two candidates run for a single position. [So it would likely eliminate Greenbelters’ use of bullet voting in an attempt to achieve their desired outcome.]
- RCV makes it easier for women and candidates of color to run for office and win. With RCV, candidates aren’t pressured to wait their turn, nor are they perceived as “spoilers.” A study of recent RCV elections found that voters of color were more likely to rank candidates than White voters. It also found that candidates of color were more likely to win RCV elections, particularly in races featuring multiple candidates of color.
- And the Campaign Legal Center summarizes advantages thusly: increases voter participation, saves time and money, avoids the spoiler effect, reduces negative campaign tactics, and more equitable representation.
3. Let Voters Choose the Mayor
First, mayors have different roles and duties in different cities, and they can influence how mayors are chosen.
“Who Votes for Mayor” from Portland University describes Greenbelt’s system (bolding added by me)
In this form of government, also referred to as “council-manager”, the elected city council makes policy and sets the budget of the city. However, to administer city policies and programs, the council then appoints and hires a professional City Manager who is responsible for managing city employees and overseeing the day-to-day operations of the government.
The mayor is a full voting member of the city’s policy-making board in these systems, but has little-to-no substantive executive power. Some mayors are simply appointed by their fellow councilors, or the largely ceremonial role is rotated among members. More commonly, the mayor is elected separately, by voters across the entire city. (Council members are often elected from specific districts, though in some jurisdictions they, too, are elected city-wide.)
Even with Greenbelt’s “weak mayor” system, its method of choosing the mayor isn’t the norm – our Council chooses the mayor and has established a tradition of selecting the member receiving the most votes for Council. One defense of this system is that it makes sense because Greenbelt’s mayor doesn’t have any more power than other Council members. But even our “weak mayors” have two important roles that are distinct and unlike other Councilmembers – as spokesperson for the city and as chair of the Council meetings. That’s enough reason to allow voters to choose that person.
The case for direct voting for mayor was made, I think, in 2019 when the Council relied on tradition and chose Colin Byrd as mayor because the residents had given that impressive young newcomer the most votes for Council. But his inexperience and unsuitability for the job of mayor was soon evident: in the following election Byrd came in sixth, and he resigned before his next term was completed. I’m one of the many voters who voted for Byrd to be a Councilmember but would not have voted for him to be our mayor.
4. Elect Council by Ward, Not At-Large
As mentioned in our letter to the editor, another result of Ric’s passing is the loss of Franklin Park’s only Councilmember, which has led to demands that his replacement also live there. That desire is understandable, and the way to ensure representation by particular parts of the city is to switch from electing members at-large to wards or what’s called “single member districts.”
Geographic representation was the primary topic at the Council’s recent listening session about the process for choosing the new Councilmember, held at Greenbriar in East Greenbelt. (See detailed coverage in the News Review, page 1.) The complaints weren’t just from residents of Franklin Park but also Greenbelt East. Former Mayor J Davis provided some historical overview – that there were many years in which East Greenbelters dominated the Council, while other parts of the city complained about that. She referred to it as an ebb and flow between the various parts of the city.
Well, ending at-large voting would put an end to that ebb and flow.
The advantages of voting by ward
- Geographic representation is ensured. The larger the city, the greater the need for geographic representation, and the need for it for Greenbelt has grown since the annexation of new and more diverse areas in the ’80s and ’90s. The case study below describes how different the voters’ relationship is with elected officials under the two voting systems.
- More chance for challengers. The current at-large system is often called an “incumbent protection system,” as it’s virtually impossible for a challenger to compete on name recognition across the entire population. Challengers need to spend more money and time to campaign successfully than if they ran just for just one ward – the part of town they live in. The last time an incumbent Greenbelt Councilmember lost was in 1985, and I’ve found just one other incident before that in Greenbelt’s history. (Source.) Even when challengers have been well known and have campaigned hard, they’ve lost unless there’s been a vacancy on the Council. Voting by ward would also probably put an end to calls for term limits as a solution to the decades-long tenures enjoyed by incumbents – a strategy that I’ve learned doesn’t work, anyway. “Bullet voting..can give that candidate a better chance, but this rarely succeeds.” Source.
- Reduce the likelihood of underrepresentation of people of color. In 2008 the NAACP and ACLU complained that the Greenbelt Council was in violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 because the Council was and had always been all-white, despite Blacks making up 38 percent of the population at that time. Source. The U.S. DOJ was investigating the charge when the city agreed to add two new seats to the Council. That happened to have resulted in the election of Greenbelt’s first Black person (Emmett Jordon), but did nothing to solve the problem going forward.
What Sources Say about At-Large Voting
If you want to rig a local election, there’s an easier way than stuffing a ballot box, gerrymandering a district, or amassing a campaign war chest to scare off challengers. Have your city or county adopt winner-take-all “At-Large” voting, where, instead of using districts, all or most council or school committee candidates must run “at large, city or countywide. Congress has banned At-Large voting for all federal elections. It’s been discarded by most states. No voting method has been subject to more litigation for its discriminatory impact on local elections. Yet, while the covers are off the discriminatory impact and intent of At-Large voting, it persists in hundreds of local jurisdictions.
In the New York Times:
With increasing frequency, Federal courts in the South are ordering local governments to abandon at-large election systems as racially discriminatory…The current legal trend is so pronounced that some local governments using at-large systems are now agreeing to negotiate single districts to better reflect racial divisions for local boards or councils.
And the Washington Post carried the story just last month of a suit against at-large voting, charging that it diminishes representation of Native Americans in Dodge City, Kansas. (Gift article.) From that article:
Experts who study representation have found that at-large election systems have frequently diluted the minority vote in towns and cities with significant non-White populations across the country. Shifting to what are known as “single-member districts,” in which individual neighborhoods elect their own city councilors and commissioners, can result in a more racially or ethnically representative government, with elected officials who tend to specific communities’ needs, they say. The phenomenon reflects a reality that in many towns and cities, neighborhoods remain highly segregated by race.
The lawsuit against Dodge City is one of several pending across the country filed by residents who have challenged how their local offices are elected. They include two ongoing suits against at-large school board systems in the Houston area and another in Maryland [Wicomico County] where Black residents and the Legal Defense Fund sued a county board, election board and school board this month.
Case Study of the Difference in Accountability Under the Two Systems
Before moving here in 2011 I lived for 26 years in Takoma Park, with about 17,400 residents. Its six councilmemers are elected by ward, and the mayor is elected directly by all voters. I’ve gotta say I miss having one council member who represented about 2,900 residents, all in my part of town, who was in regular contact with me and my neighbors and who knew our most local concerns.
What a difference to now being represented by Councilmembers elected by all 25,000 of Greenbelt’s residents, who are spread across East, West and Central Greenbelt, separated by highways and even different demographics.
Takoma Park’s council has a healthy amount of turnover, too. Which makes sense – because the incumbency advantage is so much less there. Knowing that the voters can fire you, and seeing it happen regularly to their colleagues, has quite an impact on elected representatives, whether they’re at the local level or in the gerrymandered districts drawn for the U.S. House of Representatives.
I’ve looked for research on the impact on voters of the two systems and so far, I’ve just located this statement about someplace in Washington State:
“Voting Districts Improve Quality of Life:
Research indicates that serving a broad constituency reduces an elected official’s accountability.”
Is Change Likely?
My understanding from talking with the City Clerk is that changes to Greenbelt’s system can only be made by the Council. A petition by residents (signed by 20 percent of the voters, which the Clerk estimates to be about 3,000), can require the Council to put it on its agenda. The petition might ask the Council at least create a task force to study these reforms.
The first three reforms listed here could be made fairly simply and with minimal disruption, while the last one – switching to wards – would endanger some incumbents, so it’s hard to imagine the Council voting against their colleagues’ self-interests.
But if we continue to have at-large voting, term limits would go a long way toward opening up slots for new faces, new voices, and hopefully – though there’s no guarantee – more inclusive representation. I remember that failed challenger George Boyce, founder of Greenbelt MakerSpace (who ran and lost in 2017, when there were no vacancies on the Council) proposed term limits of 10 years.
Referendum. By resolution, the council shall direct to be placed upon the ballot for any regular council election or duly called special election such questions as may be required to be submitted to the voters by this charter or the laws of Maryland and such questions as it may choose to submit to the voters. The resolution, which shall be adopted not later than the sixth Monday preceding a regular council election or at the time a special election is called, shall include the exact wording of each question to be submitted to the voters.
This history of the Greenbelt Council demonstrates the long terms experienced under our at-large system, including these recent examples:
- Ed Putens served 40 years until his retirement in 2021.
- J Davis served 30 years until her retirement in 2023.
- Councilmember Rodney Roberts is still in office, having served 32 years so far.
Diversity chart from DataUSA.
Data from U.S. Census available here.