Thursday, July 24, 2008

Greenbelt mulls changes to its voting system

Nearby jurisdictions utilize district framework

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Some cities similar to Greenbelt have been able to gain minority representation on local councils by switching to the district voting system.

Takoma Park and College Park both have district systems, but each still has majority white councils. College Park has two women, one of whom is African-American but Takoma Park, in Montgomery County, has no minority representative.

Like Greenbelt, Takoma Park has a large African-American population. Takoma Park is 34 percent African-American compared to Greenbelt’s 41.3 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Takoma Park is divided into six voting districts. There are six council members and one mayor. All of its elected officials are white.

Takoma Park City Manager Barbara Burns Matthews admitted the council was not representative of the community according to census data, especially since the city has a large immigrant population.

One of the problems, Matthews said, is lack of contention. In the last election, only one district had multiple delegates running. The others only had one name on the ballot.

College Park has four two-member districts and has always had at least one African-American on the council since the city’s incorporation in 1945, except between 1997 and 2000, College Park Councilman Robert Catlin (Dist. 2) said.

College Park has eight council members and one mayor.

College Park’s African-American community is also smaller than Takoma Park’s and Greenbelt’s at 15.9 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

‘‘We don’t typically have issues where minority members are more transient and difficult to reach with programs,” Catlin said.

Bowie has more minority representation on its City Council compared to College Park and Takoma Park. The council currently has two African Americans and two females.

Bowie is 30.8 percent African-American, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The city got rid of its at-large voting system around 8 years ago after the ACLU similarly challenged its system. Bowie now has what Mayor G. Frederick Robinson calls a hybrid system—a combination of at-large and district voting.

Bowie has six council members plus a mayor. There are four council members elected by districts and two elected at-large. The mayor is also elected at-large.

‘‘Bowie is probably the most diverse community in the state,” Robinson said. ‘‘It’s a strong, financially stable, family community that is diverse. I think the council tends to reflect that. It is the effect of the decisions we made some years back.”

Some councils looked to increase outreach to the minority community, however.

Takoma Park instituted instant-runoff voting two years ago, in which voters rank candidates in order of preference. If no candidate receives a majority of first-preference rankings, the candidate with the least number of votes is eliminated and votes are redistributed to the voters’ next preferences among the remaining candidates.

The Takoma Park City Council has been trying to increase voter participation in general, in order to generate a more accurate representation of the community. Of the 17,299 total city population, only 1,010 people voted in the last City Council election, City Clerk Jessie Carpenter said.

In Bowie, an independent election task force is reviewing many aspects of the city’s election process at the council’s request. The review includes how to file for candidacy, campaign contributions and whether the current voting system is working.

‘‘I’ve been mayor for 10 years; there are two or three or four sides to every issue,” Robinson said. ‘‘For the voting system, some people like it, others don’t.”

The city expects completion of the commission’s report late August.