A better way to elect the Howard County Council

5 minute read

A sample ranked choice ballot with up to five choices

The above shows an example of what a ballot might look like for an election conducted using ranked choice voting. A real election for a five-member council would have at least five candidates, and probably closer to ten. But the voter would still indicate just their first five choices, in order of preference. (Click for a higher-resolution version.) Image adapted from the FairVote ranked choice sample ballot and reproduced for purposes of commentary.

tl;dr: Tweaking the council redistricting process is the wrong solution. Ranked choice voting is the right one.

I’ve been preoccupied with other things and missed the fact that the Howard County Charter Review Commission is having its last public hearing tonight. James Howard, one of the commission members, recently published a preview of the commission’s recommendations.

The primary recommendation is to increase the size of the Howard County Council from five members to seven, presumably to reflect the increased population since the first Howard County Charter was adopted in 1968. I support this recommendation.

A second set of recommendations is tweak the process of redrawing council district lines, apparently in an effort to make the process less partisan. While these recommendations are worthy in and of themselves, I think they miss the point in terms of reforming the way the Howard County Council is elected. I think a better approach would be to ditch the entire council district system.

Here’s a statement I wrote to give in public testimony before the Charter Review Commission. Since it’s too late to submit written testimony by email, and I may not be able to get to the last public hearing tonight, I’m publishing it here in case anyone else wants to use it. (I’ve timed the statement to make sure it comes in under three minutes, the limit for individuals proving testimony.)

As I understand it, the Charter Review Commission is likely to recommend increasing the Howard County Council from five members to seven. However, I would like to go on record as asking the commission to consider recommending an alternative approach: to get rid of council districts, and instead elect council members on a county-wide basis using ranked-choice voting, in which voters rank the various candidates in order of their preference.

I also understand that the commission is likely to make other recommendations to improve the process of council redistricting. But beyond the time-consuming and contentious task of drawing new district lines, electing council members by districts has an inherent flaw that cannot be remedied:

Suppose you are a voter who is a member of a minority group spread relatively evenly across the county, whether that be a minority ethnic or racial group, a minority political party, or a minority interest group of any type. Your chances of having a council member representing your group are low, because your group is not likely to be a majority in any individual council district.

But in a ranked choice county-wide election your vote will count again: With a seven-member council, if your group makes up at least 10-15% of the voting population you have a good chance of electing at least one council member sympathetic to your interests. If your group makes up at least 20% of voters, that chance becomes almost a certainty.

As documented by FairVote (fairvote.org), the Ranked Choice Voting Resource Center (rankedchoicevoting.org), and others, ranked-choice voting schemes do a much better job of electing candidates who reflect voters’ true preferences. They help to preserve the voting power of minority populations, by ensuring that their votes are not wasted: even if their most preferred candidate loses, their second, third, and other preferences can help elect other suitable candidates.

When implemented using properly designed ballots, ranked choice voting is both simple for voters to understand and compatible with optical scan systems like those used in Howard County. The actual tabulation of results can be carried out either by computer or, if desired, by hand, for example in a recount of paper ballots.

Ranked choice voting has been successfully implemented in a number of US jurisdictions, including at the state, city, and county level. In particular, I recommend for the commission’s consideration the charter language and detailed voting rules implemented by the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts, for elections to its nine-member City Council and six-member School Committee.

Like Cambridge, Howard County prides itself on its high-tech economy and educated population. It deserves no less than a modern voting system that helps ensure that the Howard County Council reflects as much as possible the rich diversity of Howard County and the true preferences of Howard County voters. Thank you.

For further exploration

For more information on and arguments for ranked choice voting, see the following:

  • Ranked Choice Voting Resource Center. “The Ranked Choice Voting Resource Center provides a compilation of best practices and first-hand experiences from jurisdictions that have used this method of voting.” The people behind it have deep experience as election administrators.
  • FairVote. More activist in nature, “FairVote is a nonpartisan champion of electoral reforms that give voters greater choice, a stronger voice, and a representative democracy that works for all Americans.”
  • Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop: The Case for Multiparty Democracy in America. Argues that the current two-party duopoly is driving political polarization and gridlock, and that the only way to fix it is by moving to ranked choice voting.

For more information on other local jurisdictions considering ranked choice voting, see the following news stories:

For more information on how Howard County came to have council districts in the first place, see my book, Dividing Howard. For more details on how ranked choice voting might work in Howard County, see my series, “Electing a council that reflects Howard County”. (Those posts, written eight years ago, use the older term “proportional representation” used in other countries. The term “ranked choice voting” is what is used now in the US.)