Questions about my proposal for Howard County Council redistricting deserve answers

15 minute read

tl;dr: My proposal for Howard County Council expansion has raised a lot of questions. Here are my answers.

[This is part 6 of a seven-part series. See also part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, and part 7. I also wrote a follow-up post that can be viewed as an alternative to part 5.]

In the first post in this series I proposed a comprehensive overhaul of the way we elect the Howard County Council:

  1. Expand the council from five to fifteen members.
  2. Reduce the number of council districts from five to three.
  3. Elect five members in each district using ranked choice voting.
  4. Draw the district lines using an automated process overseen by an independent nonpartisan commission.

In this post I attempt to answer various questions people have raised about this proposal. (Note: I also addressed other questions about ranked choice voting for Howard County Council elections in an earlier post, “Ranked choice voting: questions and answers”; however that post assumed electing only one council member per district. Also, I may make updates to this post if I get further questions that merit answers, or if some of my answers turn out to be incorrect or incomplete.)

Expanding the council and having fewer districts

Doesn’t Howard County’s charter provide for automtically expanding the number of council members based on population?

Unfortunately, it does not. The county charter specifically states that

The legislative power of the County is vested in the County Council of Howard County which shall consist of five members who shall be elected from the Councilmanic Districts. … Each Councilmanic District shall elect one Council member. (Section 202. The County Council.)

So the county charter would need to be changed even just to add new council members, let alone move to multi-member districts.

A related question is whether the use of multi-member districts is consistent with the Maryland Constitution. The relevant language is as follows:

The charter for the government of any county governed by the provisions of this Article may provide for the election of members of the county council by the voters of councilmanic districts therein established, or by the voters of the entire county, or by a combination of these methods of election. (Article XI-A, Section 3A.)

This doesn’t explicitly rule out having a county council elected from multi-member districts, but it doesn’t explicitly permit it either.

If each district had five county council members, how would a person know which of their council members to call if they needed help?

First, this is a problem Howard County has faced before. Liz Bobo, Ed Cochran, C. Vernon Gray, Lloyd Knowles, and Ginny Thomas were all elected to the Howard County Council during a time when council members were elected at large, before council districts were adopted in 1984. So in a sense each of them had the entire county population for their constituency, and we can look to their experience to see how this worked in practice.

My own answer is as follows: If a constituent has five council members whom they can go to for assistance or to lobby for something, they’ll go to whomever has a particular interest or expertise in the issue at question, has proved helpful in the past, and/or has political views congenial to themselves.

Each council member in a district would likely have natural constituencies, based on the area of the county in which they live, particular interest groups they represent, and so on. For example, someone living in Ellicott City concerned about, say, Route 40 development would likely contact whichever council member in the West District happened to live in Ellicott City and seemed interested in that issue.

Council members within a district might then compete with each other to provide services to their constituents and address their concerns. It’s possible that in some cases a constituent who’s a Democratic voter may prefer dealing with a Republican council member, or vice versa, because they find that that council member is more effective at getting things done for them. But it’s also possible that they might join forces and establish unified channels for dealing with constituent requests, especially if they were of the same party.

Could we find fifteen people who could and would invest the time to serve on an expanded county council? And wouldn’t that be expensive?

I think there are more than enough ambitious political activists of all parties and ideologies in Howard to fill a fifteen-member council. And I would rather have them running for the county council and leave the Board of Education elections to people whose primary interest is in overseeing the Howard County Public School System.

As for the expense, in the proposed Howard County FY22 operating budget the budget for the county council is just under $6 million out of an overall budget of $1.8 billion, or about 0.3%. Even if it doubled or tripled with an expanded county council it would still be under 1% of county operating expenditures.

Wouldn’t expanding the county council expand the power of the county executive by weakening the ability of any one council member to hold the county executive accountable?

A county council is a legislature, and it’s inherent in the nature of a legislature that there will be many legislators relative to the executive. Even with a fifteen-member council an individual council member would have significantly more power to affect legislation and hold the executive branch accountable than (say) a typical Maryland state delegate out of the 141 members of the House of Delegates, or a typical state senator out of the 47 members of the Maryland Senate.

In practice I suspect that a fifteen-member council would delegate much of its work to committees, and the committee heads would hold significant power in terms of holding the county executive accountable.

If we reduce the number of districts from five to three, would western Howard County have any representation at all?

As discussed in the previous post, one of the three proposed districts would include western Howard County, and would have five council members (out of fifteen). It would be roughly equivalent to the current District 5, but a bit bigger, since it would contain about one hundred-ten thousand people vs. about sixty thousand today. I’m confident at least some of the five council members from the proposed West District would be from western Howard proper (as opposed to, say, Ellicott City or River Hill).

Wouldn’t decreasing the number of districts to three increase the potential to gerrymander districts so that no Republicans get elected to the Council?

This might be the case if members within each district were elected at-large. However ranked choice voting has the effect of ensuring Democratic or Republican shares of seats proportional to the parties’ vote shares. See my previous post.

Wouldn’t this proposal reduce the diversity of representation in terms of the different types of communities in Howard County, and enable certain high density areas to control the agenda?

My guess here is that the concern is with reducing the number of districts from five to three, thus lumping different different communities into larger subdivisions. My response is that even though the number of districts would be smaller, the number of council members per district would be much larger, and that would allow more effective representation of different communities.

For example, in the proposed West District there would be three relatively large communities, Ellicott City, River Hill, and Maple Lawn, along with the various smaller communities of Western Howard County. It’s perfectly possible that candidates could pitch themselves as representing one of those distinct areas (for example, a candidate specifically focusing on the Maple Lawn/Fulton area).

As for the concern about high-density areas controlling the agenda, areas with more population will always have more voting power and consequently more representation at the county council. See for example the current council, in which there are four council members representing relative populous and high density areas and only one representing the lower-density and less populous rural West.

Wouldn’t having a fifteen-member county council at least double or triple the meeting length? Would council members still be able to stay part time?

Baltimore city has a fifteen-member city council. We can look to them to see what to do (or not to do) to efficiently conduct council business. I suspect one approach will be to do what other larger legislatures do, namely to delegate some matters to committees, with the full council needing to get involved only at later stages.

If the goal of expanding the council is to enable council members to be better serve their constituents, couldn’t that be accomplished more cheaply and effectively just by increasing the number of staff members assisting each member?

Serving a constituent is not the same as representing a constituent. A progressive Democrat in District 5 may be served by their Republican council member, and served well at that, but may not feel represented by them. Ditto for a conservative Republican in other districts in which Democratic candidates invariably win.

Questions about ranked choice voting

In ranked choice voting how do you determine which excess ballots get transferred from a candidate that wins election to another candidate?

Per the FairVote advocacy site: “[Vote transfers] can be done many different ways, but the best way is to transfer a fraction of every vote to its next choice. That way, every vote is treated equally and no part of any vote is wasted.” So if a candidate is (say) 20% above the quota of first-preference votes, you take the second preference votes for everybody who voted for that candidate, multiply them by 0.2, and add these fractional votes to each of the candidates receiving the transfers.

How do you resolve the fact that whether Candidate A or Candidate B wins a seat may depend on whether a much lower ranked Candidate C gets more votes than Candidate D?

How do we resolve the fact that in the 1992 presidential election Bill Clinton won with a minority of the vote, due in large part to Ross Perot taking a large percentage of the vote away from George H.W. Bush, when it’s quite possible that most Perot voters would have preferred Bush to Clinton?

Any electoral system used in a race with more than two candidates has theoretical cases where it will fail to adhere to some set of reasonable criteria. (There’s even a mathematical theorem about this.) But how often do these situations occur in practice? Ranked choice voting with multi-member districts has been used for a long time in Ireland and Northern Ireland in particular (under the name “proportional representation with a single transferable vote”, or PR-STV) and to my knowledge has not experienced major issues of the type described.

It’s also important to look at the overall effect of a given electoral system. I dislike the “first past the post” electoral system (the one used in the US) not because of the results of a single presidential race, but because as a general tendency it tends to lead to the dominance of two political parties and the crowding out of independents and third parties, and because when used in multi-member districts it tends to produce one-party dominance at the expense of proportional representation. If ranked choice voting can help correct that then I think the occasional odd result is bearable.

Why wouldn’t parties at least run five candidates for five districts?

The problem here is as follows: When a party runs too many candidates relative to their vote share, it will likely find that none of the candidates get enough first-preference votes to be elected in the first round.

For example, in a five-member district using RCV the quota is approximately 16.7%. If Democrats had (say) a 60% vote share and first preference votes were spread relatively evenly among five Democratic candidates, each would receive about 12% of first preference votes, and would therefore fail to be elected in the first round (which requires exceeding the quota).

One might say, “well, they can be still be elected on transferred votes.” But the question then becomes, where are those transferred votes going to come from? In the second round the only source of transfers would be from winning candidates in the first round who have excess votes (i.e., above the 16.7% quota), or from a last-place candidate eliminated because no candidate met the quota.

But in our example no Democrats won in the first round, so there would be no excess votes to transfer from them. And if a candidate was eliminated, there are two possibilities: 1) The eliminated candidate was either a Republican or third-party candidate, which may not result in any transfers to Democrats. This would leave all of the Democratic candidates still below the quota. 2) The eliminated candidate was a Democratic candidate, in which case the Democratic party’s goal of electing five candidates has failed at the starting gate.

The second and subsequent rounds can be similarly analyzed. Such an analysis raises two questions: 1) If in the scenario described it’s very likely that at least one Democratic candidate will be eliminated, and possibly more than one, what was the point in running five candidates in the first place? 2) What happens if some people voting for Democratic candidates just mark a first-preference vote for their favorite candidate and don’t indicate second, third, etc., preferences? Then even after a Democratic candidate is eliminated there may not be enough second preference votes for other Democratic candidates available to make up the shortfall for another Democratic candidate.

Exploring the full ramifications of running too many candidates would take too long for this post. Suffice to say that I have read a lot of material about real-life RCV elections, and everything I have read is consistent with the view it is a potentially disastrous strategy for a party to field many more candidates than their vote share would warrant.

It seems really easy for a voter to accidentally mark two third choice candidates. Does this spoil the entire ballot?

It does indeed. The possibility of users making errors on ranked choice ballots is a real one. Opponents of ranked choice voting point to rates of spoiled or rejected ballots as high as 10% or more in past US elections using RCV.

This problem can be addressed through a combination of proper ballot design, voter education, and voter experience in using RCV. In the 2020 Irish general election the rate of spoiled ballots was only 0.8%. This is comparable to the rate of ballot spoilage and rejection for absentee and mail-in ballots in the 2020 US election, which per Ballotpedia was also 0.8%.

The New York City Democratic primary was conducted using ranked choice voting, and it took a long time to get the results. Is this an inherent problem with RCV?

The problems in New York City appear to be in large part due to inexperience and possibly outright incompetence on the part of the NYC elections board. However, there is one inherent issue with ranked choice voting that can in fact delay announcement of results:

As previously noted, key to ranked choice voting is the concept of the quota, which for a five-member district is defined as one-sixth of the total number of votes, plus one. But that means that in order to compute the quota you first need to know the total number of votes, and that means that you have to have all the votes in hand first before you can starting calculating results.

That’s not that big an issue for votes cast on election day. But what about mail-in ballots? Maryland’s current rules for mail-in voting allow up to ten days after election day for mail-in ballots to be received. If mail-in ballots are a significant fraction of the total vote then with an RCV election it might take several days after election day for there to be even preliminary results.1

Why didn’t you consider using approval voting? Or a party slate system? These don’t have the problems that ranked choice voting does.

There are multiple answers here. First, my primary goal was to look at a system that both reduced the number of districts (to reduce the potential for gerrymandering) and provided representation for political parties and other groups commensurate with their voting power. That naturally led me to look at ranked choice voting, and having software (i.e., Auto-Redistrict) that could compute district maps under those assumptions sealed the deal.

Other systems may not necessarily address the goals I have. For example, approval voting (in which each voter can indicate multiple candidates that have their approval) is worth looking at when electing a council member in a single-member district. However when applied to a multi-member district, at least in its simplest form, it can behave like traditional at-large voting and thwart proportional representation.

For example, suppose that we use the simple rule that in a five member district the five candidates receiving the most approvals will be elected. If Democrats form the majority, if all Democratic voters approve all Democratic candidates, and if no Democratic voters approve Republican or third-party candidates, then all five Democratic candidates will be ranked in the top five based on the number of approvals, and all five will be elected.

I think it’s definitely worth considering other election systems for use in Howard County. But—not to brag or anything—I put a lot of work into my analysis of ranked choice voting in the context of Howard County Council elections, and I’d like to see a similar amount of work put into evaluating any suggested alternatives.

As mentioned above, I’ll update this post as appropriate. But in the meantime I’m coming to the end of the series, with my next (and final) post discussing why I think this general issue is so important.

For further exploration

The following may be of interest:

  1. It’s worth noting here that Ireland has fairly strict restrictions on absentee voting; this may be at least part of the reason why.