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Village board campaigns again for 1 person, 1 vote


For the second time in the past year, the board of Columbia's Wilde Lake village is embarking on a campaign to give every village resident of voting age the chance to vote in its elections.

The effort to change voting rules -- from one vote per property to one vote per person -- is aimed at increasing participation in village affairs and creating a more democratic system for electing representatives to the village board and Columbia Council, said Verna Lawes, chairwoman of the Wilde Lake One Person, One Vote Committee.

The campaign kickoff will coincide with Columbia elections April 22.

"Enabling everyone in Wilde Lake to vote for village board and Columbia Council representatives would personify democracy, because we do represent everybody, not just one person in a household," said Ms. Lawes, who also is vice chairwoman of the village board. "When people are disenfranchised, the level of participation certainly is not there."

Neighboring Harper's Choice village may try to follow in Wilde Lake's footsteps. Harper's Choice resident Yale Stenzler has volunteered to form a committee to change that village's voting rules, an effort just in the formative stage.

Changing voting rules -- set in Columbia village covenants by the Rouse Co., Columbia's developer -- is no easy task. To amend the covenants, the Wilde Lake committee must gain approval of 90 percent of the village's property owners, a task many in Columbia view as extremely difficult.

In Wilde Lake, that means 1,945 out of 2,161 property owners -- including 340 absentee owners -- must sign consent forms.

But Ms. Lawes is optimistic. "My sense is that Wilde Lake will demonstrate that volunteerism does work and has a power in this campaign," she said. "The key to our success is to get Wilde Lake residents involved as volunteers."

The village board was unable to recruit volunteers for a similar campaign that fizzled last summer. The board originally accepted the challenge after the Columbia Council offered $2,500 in assistance to any village attempting it. Wilde Lake, which didn't receive the contribution for last year's aborted effort, has requested the money again.

The committee has planned an educational campaign using phone calls, door-to-door visits, mailings and several events, Ms. Lawes said, adding that its costs could exceed $2,500.

Voting rules in eight of 10 villages restrict voting in Columbia elections to one vote for each property lot owned or rental lease held. Absentee owners maintain voting rights, and owners of more than one property lot can cast multiple votes.

Columbia elections historically have drawn low turnouts, with villages struggling to meet requirements for a 10 percent quorum.

The 10-member Columbia Council -- with one representative from each village -- sets policy and administers a $33 million budget for the nonprofit Columbia Association (CA), which oversees community facilities, programs and parkland. Village boards act as advocacy bodies for residents and enforce architectural guidelines.

Some argue that current voting rules are appropriate for Columbia, an unincorporated community of about 82,000 residents that is run more like a huge homeowners association than a government. Wilde Lake resident Paul S. Newman opposes the proposed change, saying it could dilute his voting power in homeowner association matters. "The property should represent us on the village level," he said.

Others say that voting according to property ownership in a community of Columbia's size alienates residents and is un-American. "It seems to me what we're doing is making a commitment to people rather than to property," said Thomas D. Scott, a One Person, One Vote Committee member.

In Harper's Choice, Mr. Stenzler said he wants to give residents "more direct say and build more enthusiasm. I want to get more people involved in elections and reverse some of the apathy."

Even Padraic Kennedy, president of the Columbia Association, said changing the voting rules is a "terrific idea."

"I think it further opens the process," said Mr. Kennedy, a Wilde Lake resident who has volunteered to work on the campaign in his neighborhood. "Whether people take advantage of it or not, the opportunity is important."

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