Baltimore Voters to Decide Whether to Break Up Old Council Districts


Voters going to the polls Tuesday in Baltimore will have the chance to remake the Baltimore City Council in two ways -- by sending new faces to City Hall and by breaking up the three-member teams that represent each of the council's six districts.

Question L, a dry charter amendment placed at the far right on the election ballot, asks voters if they favor replacing the existing six councilmanic districts in the city -- each of which sends three representatives to the council -- with 18 single-member districts.

The charter amendment, which if approved would be take effect for the 1995 election, has made for strange bedfellows in Baltimore, a city whose voting patterns still reflect the influence of the once dominant predominately-white Democratic political machines.

The Baltimore Republican Party, frustrated by its inability to elect a Republican to the council since before World War II, is backing the charter amendment in hopes of attaining a political resurgence.

So are some members of the Baltimore Branch of the National Association for the Advance of Colored People, who say a redistricting plan signed into law earlier this year does not go far enough in helping blacks win council seats in proportion to the city's population, which is roughly 55 percent black.

Conversations with political scientists across the county show a prevailing theory that single-member districts are far more likely to result in increased representation by minority groups. So-called at-large elections, where representatives for an entire jurisdiction can receive votes from anyone within that jurisdiction, are much less likely to result in minority representation because minority votes are diluted by the broader population.

Political observers also said that smaller districts would reduce the amount of money a candidate would need to run and reduce the number of votes needed to win, factors that might encourage people from outside of the traditional political organizations to run.

The current council arrangement in Baltimore, which has roots dating back to the mid-19th Century, is a hybrid between at-large and district elections.

Voters in each of Baltimore's six councilmanic districts elect three council representatives, giving the Baltimore arrangement an at-large character. For example, residents living in Flag House Courts, a low-income housing project near the Inner Harbor, have the same three council representatives as do residents along solidly blue-collar Belair Road in the city's Northeast.

But because the three representatives are elected from the same district, their allegiances are more narrow than they would be if they were elected citywide.

But some people say that tampering with the existing system might not be such a good idea.

Some say replacing the multi-member district arrangement with a single-member arrangement could actually lead to less representation for groups which constitute a minority within any one of the districts because they would no longer have more than one opportunity to win a sympathetic ear in City Hall.

With three council members for each district, anyone who cannot persuade one council member to take up a cause always has two others to turn to.

That often has been the case in Baltimore's Second District. Black constituents in the predominantly-black eastern portion of the district frequently have sought sympathy among the district's two black council members when raising such issues as the teaching of black history in the school system. White RTC middle class residents who, for example, did not want their Bolton Hill neighborhood cut out of the district during a redistricting earlier this year, sought support from the district's lone white councilman.

Critics of the single-member district system also warn that it could Balkanize city politics, filling council chambers with a babble of competing interests.

"In general, single member districts lead to over-concern with local, as opposed to citywide, interests," said Barry S. Rundquist, an associate professor of political science at the University of Illinois.

He said council members in Chicago, a city of 2.8 million people where a single representative is elected from each of 50 wards, ** are frequently ridiculed for putting local garbage collection and pothole repair in front of issues effecting citywide economic development.

They say one of the strengths of the three-member district system in Baltimore is that council members, whose sprawling districts generally include neighborhoods both rich and poor, black and white, are forced to take a broader view of the issues. Under the current system, council members cannot afford to pander to a narrow interest for fear of losing votes in another part of their district.

Also, some argue that the current system encourages council members to form alliances, while single-member districts could make the members more competitive.

"My own sense of it is, if I were the mayor I would be pretty happy about this," John Nalbandian, a city council member in Lawrence, Kansas who is also a professor of government administration at the University of Kansas. "The smaller the districts the more the representation, but the smaller the district, the larger the political fragmentation."

Mr. Nalbandian said while efforts to replace purely at-large districts with single-member districts has become common in areas where minorities have had a hard time winning political office, it is fairly unusual for groups to try to change from one type of district election system to another.

Federal law requires that districts be drawn in a manner that does not intentionally thwart the political aspirations of any racial group.

Although the redistricting plan drawn earlier this year has not been successfully challenged in court -- a lawsuit challenging the plan was thrown by a federal judge as having been filed too late -- some opponents say that the current district system still is not fair to blacks and Republicans.

But political scientists both here and in Chicago, which is undergoing a bitter redistricting struggle of its own, said that what ultimately happens may have more to do with who gets to draw the council map than how many districts are drawn. Because the new map would be drawn by members of the existing city council, it likely would be drawn to preserve the power of its predominately white, Democratic membership.

"There are neighborhoods in the city where the Republicans may actually be a majority, but the question is who will be drawing up the districts," said Matthew Crenson, a Johns Hopkins University political scientist. "I don't see many Republicans being involved in that process."

Martin Evans covers Baltimore city government for The Sun.

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