A coalition of Baltimore County groups is calling for a referendum to be tacked onto November’s ballot that, if passed, would add four seats to the seven-member county council beginning with the 2026 election.
Organizers say expanding the council makes sense given the county’s growth. From 2010 to 2020 the county grew about 6%, so each council member represents about 122,000 constituents — far more than when the body was established by county charter in the 1950s.
“We need to modernize. We need to reflect the change that has taken place,” said Linda Dorsey-Walker, a county resident who has championed the idea for several years.
Organizers of the effort, called “VOTE4MORE!,” say expanding the council could increase its productivity and offer fresh opportunities for young people, people of color and other groups to run for office. Their proposal comes as the county faces legal challenges to its current redistricting process in the wake of the 2020 census.
After several civil rights groups filed suit, a federal judge last week tossed out the county’s new map, arguing it would diminish Black voters’ opportunity to elect their chosen candidates. By Tuesday, the County Council must submit a map with two majority-Black districts instead of one, or another configuration by which Black voters would “otherwise have an opportunity to elect a representative of their choice.”
In recent years, voters in Maryland’s two most populous jurisdictions — Montgomery and Prince George’s counties — have voted to expand their councils to 11 members. Both feature “at-large” council members not tied to specific districts. Baltimore County is the state’s third largest.
Baltimore County Council Chairman Julian E. Jones, Jr. said he is studying the proposal, including how it might increase the budget for the county council by necessitating more support staff or a larger meeting space.
According to a National Association of Counties analysis from 2015, jurisdictions similar in size to Baltimore County typically had seven or fewer county representatives. But some similar-sized jurisdictions, including San Francisco city and county, had more.
Getting the referendum on the ballot in Baltimore County this year may be an uphill battle. The County Council could add it; otherwise organizers would have to gather 10,000 valid signatures from county residents. Organizers would have to get the first third of the signatures by May 31, and the remainder by June 30.
That’s why Dorsey-Walker is pushing for the passage of state legislation that would allow signatures to be collected electronically, which was permitted earlier in the pandemic. The bill, HB1089, is before the House Ways and Means Committee and sponsored by Del. Sheila Ruth of Baltimore County.
“They want us to go back to the 1955 version of collecting signatures: I have to wait for you outside the supermarket and you may or may not want to stop. You may or may not want to stand 6 inches away from me. You may or may not want to give me your birth date and your full home address and your signature,” Dorsey-Walker said. “We’re hoping that people will do that because they want so badly a change to take place. Why must they?”
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Meanwhile the group is planning appearances at large county events like the Towsontown Spring Festival and the Reisterstown Bloomin’ ArtFest in late April and May, said Dorsey-Walker, who also serves on the Baltimore County Democratic Central Committee.
Several community organizers joined Dorsey-Walker on Thursday to be the first to sign the petition during a news conference at the Randallstown Community Center. They included representatives from the Randallstown NAACP and the Baltimore County League of Women Voters.
“The county’s seven-district structure devised in the 1950s is outdated and unresponsive to the needs of our increasingly diverse communities,” said Sonia Shah of Allies for Democracy, which is based in Baltimore County. “We saw this vividly in the recent redistricting cycle.”
For Alejandra Ivanovich of Amigos Baltimore County, who immigrated to the United States from Venezuela, the effort represents an opportunity to reach out to the county’s Hispanic population and potentially add a Hispanic member to the council.
“As a community activist, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve seen firsthand the great need of minorities,” she said. “I believe that by supporting this cause, it will allow for people like me to be properly represented in Baltimore County. In fact, there has never been a Latino serving on the County Council.”
With fewer constituents, County Council members would be better able to attend to the individual needs of the communities they represent, said Mark Weaver, who represented the Southwest Baltimore Democratic Club.
“Although I am here with a political organization, this is not a partisan issue,” he said. “It’s good government.”