Beyond term limits for the Howard County Council

2 minute read

As noted by HoCo Rising, Calvin Ball recently proposed allowing Howard County Council members to serve four terms instead of three. The usual opinionating ensued; speaking for myself, although I’m not a huge fan of term limits I don’t think they’re illegitimate either. In essence they’re an expression of voters’ distrust of politicians and a blunt instrument by which voters try to compensate for perceived flaws in the political system. Since the political system does have flaws and politicians do act out of self-interest, we can forgive voters for being attracted to the idea of term limits.

I’m less interested in arguing about the merits of term limits and more interested in using this opportunity to put other ideas on the table. In particular, maybe there’s a bargain to be made here: Why not consider extending term limits for council members, but only if this change is accompanied by other charter changes to improve the way council members are elected?

First, let’s ditch the idea of electing council members by district. It’s pretty clear that the process of drawing district lines is broken, and I very much doubt that it can be fixed. As I document in Dividing Howard and has been confirmed in the most recent redistricting effort, the process of drawing council district lines has always been politicized, whether it was done by the council itself as in the early years or by an ostensibly independent redistricting commission as done at present. The commission itself is not truly independent, since its members are nominated by the party central committees and its tie-breaking member is selected by the party holding a council majority. Moreover the council has never been able to resist making further changes to redistricting plans that have already been drawn up based on political considerations.

We could certainly try once again to fix the redistricting process, as I discussed in my post “Can we take the politics out of Howard County Council redistricting?” However as I’ve also discussed (in “Council gerrymandering and the Howard County selectorate”) there are other reasons for avoiding election by districts.

In particular, the smaller size of districts and their dominance by voters of a single party (due both to gerrymandering and geographic clustering of like-minded voters) mean that in practice a council majority could likely be selected based on the votes of a very small group of voters. (I estimated this to be “as few as 9,000-10,000 people, or about 5% of the total number of registered voters in Howard County.”) This is not a healthy state of affairs, as it motivates even the most even-handed politician to unduly favor the coterie of party partisans, local activists, and others primarily responsible for their election, to the detriment of other Howard County voters.

Requiring council members to once again run on a county-wide basis would expand the “selectorate” and help motivate council members to take a more expansive view of who they consider to be their key supporters and constituents. However, as I’ve also discussed (“Should Howard County elect council members at large?”), just going back to the former system of electing council members at large is unlikely to produce any real change in terms of making elections more competitive.

If a conventional at-large scheme is not suitable, what’s the alternative? I’ll address that in my next post.