A history of Howard County Council redistricting, part 3

6 minute read

At the end of part 2 of this series Columbia Democrats had finally achieved political power within Howard County: The 1974 general election produced a 5-0 Democratic majority on the County Council, including four Columbians, and a county executive sympathetic to Columbia’s concerns. However again the rest of the county sought various ways to curb the power of Columbia, including in particular a proposal to elect council members by districts. Let’s go to the tape:

April 1975. Howard County’s Maryland legislators, state senator James Clark, Jr., and delegates J. Hugh Nichols and Hugh Burgess, support a bill to amend the Maryland constitution to allow a local referendum on introducing County Council districts, much to the annoyance of their fellow Democrats on the Howard County Council. Council member Lloyd Knowles complains that the same guys we worked so hard for during the election are trying to attack us. Delegate Nichols, a long-time supporter of council districts, comes in for special criticism.1

A public hearing on the bill at Howard High School attracts 500 people, and emotions run high. Audience members boo Eugene Weiss of the Columbia Democratic Club and interrupt him as he reads a seven-page prepared statement asking for more study of the proposal, and an Elkridge resident protests, Who in Columbia knows what goes on in [the Elkridge area]? None of you. In opposition, council member Thomas Yeager of Fulton points out that basing council districts on the 1970 census results would disenfranchise 30,000 new voters, mostly in the Columbia area.2

Despite concerns by Columbians, the Maryland Senate approves a referendum bill 31-1, with support expressed by both the Democratic and Republican Central Committees in Howard County. Clark dismisses concerns about the referendum being divisive (As far as the divisive issue is concerned, the quicker you hit the issue head-on the better) and defeated Republican county executive candidate Howard Crist says, How can any good Howard County citizen stand up and say they are opposed to having countians decide by referendum?

(Howard council angered by action in Annapolis, Senate votes to let Howard county choose at-large or district elections)

1975-1976. Proponents of council districts form study groups and start a petition drive. Over 10,000 signatures are collected for a proposal (created by a bipartisan group sponsored by the Democratic and Republican Central Committees) to establish seven council districts, one for western Howard County and six for the remainder of the county, some centered on Columbia and Ellicott City and some sharing voters between those areas and Elkridge, Savage, or north Laurel.

Because of where they reside, the five current council members would have to compete with each other for two of the seven proposed seats. County executive Edward Cochran denounces the proposal as an attempt to gerrymander out of office most of the current council. A proponent of the proposal responds that the map was simply dictated by U.S. Supreme Court criteria on equality of districts: We did not have the present council in mind.

In the November 1976 general election 57.5% of those voting oppose the referendum to establish council districts, with the no vote exceeding 80% in Columbia and with substantial opposition also coming from voters in Savage, Guilford, Scaggsville, and north Laurel. These votes offset 65%-70% majorities for council districts in Elkridge, Ellicott City, West Friendship, and Lisbon. Council member Thomas Yeager calls out council district proponents Nichols and Clark: I hope they get challenged in 1978 because we need someone in Annapolis who can work with the county administration, instead of opposing for opposing’s sake.

However even as Howard County voters defeat the council district referendum, by a 3-1 margin Maryland voters approve Question 4, amending the Maryland constitution to allow Howard County voters to repeat the referendum in future years.2

(Referendum on at-large posts in Howard backed, Cochran calls district plan attempt at gerrymander, Council, chief win Howard vote, Over 50% of state voters ignored 21st amendment)

In part 4 the battle between Columbia and the rest of Howard County continues, and a charter review board considers possible changes to Howard County’s charter, including whether or not to retain at-large council elections.

  1. You may wonder why the Maryland constitution needed to be amended in order to allow Howard County voters to adopt council districts. The background is as follows:

In 1914-1915 the Maryland constitution was amended by adding a new Article XI-A, Local Legislation, to allow counties to have home rule powers through adoption of a charter (Chapter 416, Acts of 1914). It was this scheme that allowed Howard County to become a charter county in 1968. The original Section 3 of Article XI-A provided that legislative powers for a charter county would reside in a county council, but did not specify exactly how such councils would be elected.

In the absence of such specification the interpretation was apparently that county council members could be elected only by the voters of the entire county, i.e., council districts were not permitted under the constitution. In 1972 the constitution was amended to add a new Section 3A of Article XI-A that explicitly authorized voters in Baltimore County (only) to decide whether the council should be elected by councilmanic districts or at-large (Chapter 358, Acts of 1971). The proposal in 1975 was to further amend Section 3A to also allow Howard County voters to vote to have their council elected by district (Chapter 758, Acts of 1975).↩

  1. Unfortunately I can’t find any online sources that directly support or contradict Yeager’s assertion. However we can get a feel for the impact of Columbia’s growth by looking at the 1970 and 1974 general elections.

At the time of the 1970 general election (in which Omar Jones was reelected county executive) there were 23,683 registered voters in Howard County, of whom 68% or about 16,100 turned out. 2,760 people voted in Columbia in that election, so in 1970 Columbians made up only about 17% of the voting population.

In the 1974 general election (in which Edward Cochran was elected county executive) over 24,000 people voted, or about 8,000 more people than in 1970. If we assume that most of those new voters were from Columbia precincts then the number of Columbia voters in 1974 could have been as high as 10,000 or more, and might have represented 40% or more of all voters, more than doubling Columbia’s share of the voting population in just four years.

(See also my post on Howard County population growth, which references 10%+ annual population growth in the early 1970s.)↩

  1. After the constitutional amendment was ratified to allow Howard County to have council districts if desired, further amendments were approved and ratified to allow voters to choose the use of council districts in Prince George’s County (Chapter 682, Acts of 1977), Anne Arundel County (Chapter 136, Acts of 1980), and Montgomery County (Chapter 729, Acts of 1982).

The Maryland constitution was then amended to allow any charter county to use council districts if desired (Chapter 707, Acts of 1986), but a separate amendment exempted Harford County from this provision and required it to elect council members at large (Chapter 694, Acts of 1986). Finally the constitution was amended to remove the special treatment for Harford County (Chapter 82, Acts of 1996), so that at present any charter county without exception may choose to elect council members by district.

It’s also worth noting that Section 3A in Article XI-A actually allows for a combination approach, in which some council members are elected by district and some are elected at-large.↩