Electing a council that reflects Howard County, part 2

4 minute read

In part 1 of this two-part post I discussed my proposal to replace the current way of electing the Howard County Council with a new scheme to elect council members county-wide using a single transferable vote (STV) scheme. As is apparent from even my simplified explanation, understanding and running an STV election is significantly more difficult than a traditional by-district or at-large election. Why put ourselves to this extra trouble? In short, because STV can do a much better job of ensuring that election results reflect voters’ true preferences.

The first major advantage is that voters aren’t casting “wasted” votes, like a conservative Republican in District 2 whose vote for the GOP has no effect in practice, or a liberal Democrat in District 5 whose preferred candidate is very likely to lose. In an STV scheme a given level of county-wide support for a party would translate into a roughly corresponding number of seats on the council. (More on this below.)

This proportional representation effect also applies to other voting blocs. For example, if a given demographic group exceeds or is close to 16.7% of all voters and members of that group were willing to make a candidate in their own group either their first or second preference, it’s a pretty good bet that someone from that group would be elected to the council. For example, this applies to African-Americans (17.5% of the population according to U.S. Census data) as well as to Asian-Americans (14.4% of the population).

STV thus offers a way to foster diversity on the council without artificially concentrating minority voters in one district. This is especially important in cases where such voters are not concentrated in one or two areas but rather are spread throughout the county. For example, in the recent round of council redistricting someone (I can’t recall who) complained that in practice black voters outside of District 2 had no opportunity to vote for an African-American candidate with a good chance of being elected. This would not be the case under an STV system.

This same effect works with geographic areas as well. Even in the absence of formal council districts it’s likely that voters in a particular geographic area would preferentially vote for someone from their own area, Columbia voters preferring a Columbia candidate, voters in western Howard preferring someone from that area of the county, and so on. As long as those areas are large enough to provide one or more quotas for candidates it’s likely that we’d see a reasonable degree of geographic diversity on the council.

We’d also avoid cases where voters in a particular area get moved out of their preferred district, as happened with the Wheatfield and Brampton Hills neighborhoods in Ellicott City in the most recent round of council redistricting. Under a county-wide STV scheme those voters could still consider Courtney Watson “their candidate” and make her their first choice in preference to others.

Coming back to the party question, it’s certainly true that STV would make it more likely that Democrats would hold only a 3-2 council majority as opposed to the 4-1 majority of the past few years. If we’re wearing our red or blue spectacles this would certainly be good news for Republicans and bad news for Democrats. But if we take off those spectacles then it’s apparent that voters are more ideologically diverse than the simple Team Red vs. Team Blue distinction would indicate.

For example, a while back I published a blog post about the Political Typology Quiz created by the Pew Research Center, which divides registered voters into eight different ideological groups ranging from 9% to 16% of the voting population. Some of the groups don’t necessarily fit comfortably into the left-right divide, for example the libertarians (10% of voters) and post-moderns (“moderates, but liberal on social issues,” 14% of voters). In an STV system one of those groups (or more likely a combination of them) might have a good shot of getting someone on the council who was more ideologically compatible with that group’s voters than the typical socially conservative Republican or fiscally liberal Democrat.

This all sounds very lovely, but what are the real chances of STV being adopted in Howard County? In the normal course of events, almost zero. The traditional way of doing things is too entrenched and politicians and party activists are too invested in it, especially on the Democratic side where the power to change things mostly resides. But if Calvin Ball and other Democratic politicians want changes to the current system for their own reasons, and are looking to voters to consider changes to the county charter, perhaps that opens up the opportunity to look at other changes that might help balance out the perceived negative effects of increasing term limits.

If so, that moves the chances of a major revamp to the current council district scheme from zero to something at least a tad more than that. And in any case you can’t fault a fellow for trying.