Chairman opposes by-district voting
STEVENSVILLE — The chairperson of the committee that helped implement the current method of electing Queen Anne’s County Commissioners says the proposed by-district voting isn’t representative and ends up being costly.
The by-district issue appears as Question A on this election’s ballot as a straw poll that isn’t legally binding. A yes vote supports changing to by-district voting and a no vote supports keeping the current system. If enacted, the voter would then have two county commissioner representatives, one from the district in which the voter lives and the at-large commissioner — not all five commissioners, which is the current method.
Barbara Obert of Stevensville sat down to an interview on Saturday, Oct. 29, to give her historical perspective, which she believes is why people should vote against Question A.
It was a two-year process to develop the way voters elect the commissioners today, she said. It was designed to solve a problem.
“We only had three commissioners [at that time] and so, there was a vote to expand to five commissioners to better divide up the workload across the county. Also, there was not a [district] residency requirement. Commissioners could live next door to each other,” she said.
There was a straw poll in 2000 where voters approved two changes. One was to change to the current system where the voters of the entire county elect commissioners who reside in designated districts. The other increased the number of commissioners from three to five.
After the straw poll, a committee was formed to determine how to implement those changes. So the county appointed an 11-person committee of citizens throughout the county. Obert was the chairperson of that committee.
The commissioners enacted the changes effective with the 2002 election.
The committee had members from every district across the county, Democrats, Republicans, men, women, minorities, nonminorities, farmers, stay at-home moms and people of all professionals. “It was balanced and unbiased,” Obert said.
In the two-year process, the group looked at population, voting populations, districts, sub-districts, minority population, and all the requirements of the election law.
“We interviewed the governments of other counties of similar size and demographics and with different forms of government. We consulted with attorneys and drove across the county to be certain all committee members were familiar with the county,” she said.
The group looked at many possible ways commissioners are elected and came up with the current system. Obert opposes by-district voting based on her experience on the committee.
By-district voting, she said, is less representative because a commissioner who is elected by only a small group of people is only accountable to that small group. And it gets expensive because commissioners compete for resources only for that small group in their district.
“So, if individuals represent a very small population weld a greater influence in the county, they could potentially ask for more than their population share of county taxes,” she said.
The Maryland General Assembly was approached by county officials to put the straw poll on the ballot for this coming election, but, at no time, did they request a presentation from Obert or the report from her committee.
The pushers for by-district voting are counting on people to not understand the issue, she said.
The Council of Governments, which represents towns throughout Queen Anne’s County, has endorsed by-district voting as Question A asks. Yet, a small number of voters elect representatives from those towns and some candidates run unopposed, Obert said.
One big argument in favor of by-district is that voters in District 4 trump people’s votes in other districts.
But voting populations are equalized per district after each U.S. Census. “The populations are roughly equal, and every 10 years, when the Census occurs, districts are re-equalized.”
District 4 does often have the largest voter turnout, but not always.
In the 2012 election, District 4 had 66 percent of registered voters turn out to vote, the highest of all the districts. But in the 2014 election, which was a commissioner election, District 1 had the most turnout with 47 percent of the registered voters.
“The point is, in any given election, people have a choice to vote or not vote. It’s not right to change the way we elect officials because people in one district chose not to vote in an election. It’s gerrymandering,” she said.
Question A on the upcoming election ballot reads: “Do you favor changing the method of selection of four of the five members of the Queen Anne’s County Board of County Commissioners from the current method of being elected at large by the voters of Queen Anne’s County, with one member residing in each of the four election districts, to a new method where each of the four members is elected by only the voters of the district in which the member resides and the fifth member is elected at large and may reside in any district of the County?”
The results of the election vote are not binding. It’s up to Maryland General Assembly to legally enact by-district voting, said Patrick Thompson, county attorney.
Barbara Obert of Stevensville was chairperson of the committee that came up with the current system of electing Queen Anne’s County Commissioners. She opposes bydistrict voting.