Greenbelt has an unusual system for electing its city council and mayor, which I find curiously undemocratic. Council members all represent the entire city – they’re “at-large” – unlike in most cities where council members represent geographic wards or districts. There are some big problems with an at-large system.
At-Large Voting Gives Incumbents a Nearly Insurmountable Advantage over Challengers
This isn’t intuitive (at least to me) but here’s how I understand it. Consider the scenario where you have 7 incumbents and 4 challengers running for 7 seats. If a voter chooses 5 from the incumbent slate and 2 from the challenger slate, the average incumbent would get 71 votes from 100 voters compared to the average challenger who gets 50 votes. The 7th place incumbent could be 44% less popular than the top incumbent and still would get 51 votes. On the other hand, a challenger could be 77% more favored over the least popular challenger and still only get 70 votes. History shows that it indeed takes an infrequent combination of unfavorable incumbent and very popular challenger to create a change in council.
Greenbelt’s own history sure bears that out. Current Council members have collectively served 116 years, with individual years as follows:
- Ed Putens – 36 years
- Rodney Roberts – 26 years
- J Davis – 24 years
- Leta Mach – 14 years
- Konrad Herling – 14 years
- Emmett Jordan – 8 years
- Silke Pope – 8 years
Both Jordan and Pope were elected to open seats created in response to a 2009 lawsuit against Greenbelt for its lack of minority representation. (More on that below.) The change didn’t reduce the virtual lock that incumbents have on their seats as it kept at-large voting – the civic equivalent of severe gerrymandering in protecting incumbents – in place. The other Council members also gained their seats when there was an opening, not as a result of beating an incumbent. The last incumbent to lose was Richard Pilski, a 20-year council member, in 1985. Source.
Best Way to Elect a Challenger? Tactical Bullet Voting
As a math-challenged sort myself, I’ve had a hard time understanding the one tactic available to voters for giving challengers a chance at winning under our current system. So I asked the actual math whiz Eva Fallon to explain it to me because as the wife of challenger George Boyce in our last election, she’s also very familiar with the problem. Here’s her answer:
“Bullet voting is when the voter selects one candidate, despite the option to vote for other candidates, and not using their other votes. Voters might do this either because it’s easier than evaluating all the candidates, or as a form of tactical voting.
“Here’s how it works. Let’s simplify a bit and say that we have three candidates running for two seats: John Smith, Jane Doe, and James Dawson. You get to vote for two of the candidates to fill two seats.
“Let’s say you are wild about Jane Doe and cast a vote for her. You also kind of like John Smith, so you vote for him as well. Your neighbor doesn’t think much of Jane Doe, so he votes for James Dawson and John Smith – emphatically voting for anyone other than Jane Doe. The question is, did you weaken your support for Jane Doe by voting for John Smith as well? And did your neighbor dilute his support for James Dawson in the same way? Between the two of you, the election stands at one vote for Jane Doe, one vote for James Dawson, and two votes for John Smith, who was no one’s first choice. Great for John Smith; not so good for your favorite, Jane Doe.
“Advocates of bullet voting say that you should only vote for your first choice, Jane Doe, throwing your second vote away. In the example above, the election would stand at one vote apiece for each of the candidates. What you’re hoping for is that enough of your friends do the same thing. If all the Jane Doe supporters vote only for her, and a few of the supporters of some of the other candidates include Jane as one of their two votes, then there’s a good chance that the candidate you are wild about will garner enough votes in relation to the other candidates to win one of the seats.
“It is all more complicated when it is between 7 seats and 13 candidates, as in Greenbelt’s case this year. (That’s Bayesian Probabilities – probabilities updated as more information becomes available.)
“There’s one argument against bullet voting. If there is someone you absolutely can’t stand and you really want to keep him/her off the Council, then you shouldn’t bullet vote. Your favorite may not win; but you’ll keep someone you can’t stand off the Council.”
At-large Voting Also Dilutes Minority Votes, Leading to Under-representation of Minority Districts
This is well documented nationally and is evident in Greenbelt’s results, too, with its inadequate representation from such areas as Greenbelt West. The lawsuit I mentioned above, brought by the ACLU, NAACP, and Fair Vote under the Voting Rights Act, was in response to Greenbelt’s all-white representation, despite its sizable minority population.
The Council responded by adding two more seats, though the real solution would have been to switch to ward or district representation, which would guarantee representation by not just minority populations but also (obviously) by all areas of town.
I lived with ward representation for my 26 years in Takoma Park and I’ve gotta say I miss having one council member who represents just my part of town, who’s the one person I know will response to problems on my street, because that’s their top job.
Another oddity with Greenbelt’s system is that we don’t elect our mayor, who’s actually chosen by the full Council and traditionally is automatically the top vote-getter in the most recent election. I don’t understand how this could possibly be better than a directly elected mayor – someone who runs head-to-head with others for that particular job.
Are Term Limits the Solution?
No, I’ve made my argument for voting by ward and I’m sticking with it. But as long as Greenbelt has at-large representation, term limits would go quite a way toward opening up slots for new faces, new voices, and hopefully – though there’s no guarantee – more inclusive representation. I think 10-year terms would be plenty, and I understand that George Boyce is supporting that term, too. Any other candidates?