Local Democracy Doesn't Come Easy

Aug. 25, 2004
Come November 2nd in Prince George’s County, Md., many people will be highly motivated by the presidential election to go to the polls. Fewer will look down the ballot (or flip through the computer screens) and pay attention to the initiatives called Question A, Question B, and so forth.

But in a state like Maryland that is safely in one presidential candidate’s column, it is on local matters that a vote has the biggest impact. And in the case of Prince George’s County this Election Day, it is by voting Yes on something called Question H that voters will do the most for the health of our democracy.

What is Question H? It’s an initiative that local citizens placed on the ballot by collecting over 20,000 signatures. The most important thing it does is allow the voting public to elect the Chair of the County Council. Currently the Council itself chooses the Chair from among its ranks. Question H enlarges the Council from nine to 11 members by adding two at-large members. The at-large member receiving the most votes becomes the Chair.

The campaign to place Question H on the ballot was led by the community group ACORN. The way they see it, the at-large members will be forced to consider the interests of the county as a whole rather than a single district, and the same sort of community involvement that placed the initiative on the ballot will be used to keep these new members accountable to the public interest.

I think they’re right, and I certainly think that we, the public, should have the power to elect the Chair. But, more importantly, I think that we as voters must reject the disgraceful insult to democracy embodied in three initiatives placed on the ballot by the current County Council in an effort to confuse us and block Question H.

The practice of adding questions to a ballot in order to confuse voting on an initiative that was placed on by petition is all too common and not unique to this county, but PG County has gone one better and drafted initiatives that amend Question H virtually out of existence before it has a chance to take effect. These aren’t just weaker versions of Question H; they actually reverse Question H, so that passing all of them and H would result in no meaningful change to current law.

Oh, the County placed Question H on the ballot all right. They had no choice. But they placed it in the middle of three initiatives that in combination reverse it, although that fact will hardly be apparent to anyone reading the ballot.

To understand exactly how outrageous the Council’s conduct has been it’s necessary that I give you the actual wording of these initiatives as they will appear on the ballot. Question H (the only one marked “By Petition”) will read as follows:

“To enlarge the Council from nine to eleven members, adding two at-large members; providing that term limits on district members do not apply to a district member running for an at-large seat on the Council; providing that the at-large member receiving the greatest number of votes shall be Chairman of the Council.”

This is not the actual language that will be incorporated into law if the question passes. Rather, this is the summary the County has chosen to use to describe that language on the ballot. The important point, that this initiative will allow the public to elect the Chair, and that this will be something new, is fairly well hidden.

Questions F, G, and I effectively undo Question H. Even if Question H is approved by a margin of many thousands, if any of these other three pass by even a single vote, then at least part of H will not go into effect.

Question I reads: “To establish voting rights for at-large council members and to provide a precedence clause in the event of conflicting charter amendments ratified by the voters at the November 2004 general election.” Again, these are not the words of the law but the explanation on the ballot. The law actually denies at-large members the right to vote.

Question F reads: “To provide that members of the County Council may not be elected to more than two consecutive terms, and to provide a precedence clause

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