A Shot at Democracy in Wilde Lake

January 11, 1994

Leaders in Columbia's Wilde Lake are mounting a courageous effort to change voting rules in their village to "one-person, one-vote." Their crusade, to be sure, is a long shot. Reforming the village's election rules require that 90 percent of Wilde Lake homeowners vote in favor of the change. If successful, the ramifications could extend to other villages and might push Columbia toward a more traditional -- and democratic -- form of governance.

But the process of getting 90-percent participation is awesome, involving mailings, phone calls and door-to-door visits. (Even hotly contested national presidential elections are lucky to turn out much more than half of the electorate.) Even if village leaders are not successful, though, the level of participation they generate may shed light on the community's feelings about voting rights.

Columbia, an unincorporated city of about 80,000 residents, has long grappled with the issue. Village officials and members of the Columbia Council are elected, but rules vary within villages and in most cases limit voting to one person per household. In addition, a quirk in the interpretation of voting rules led to a court battle over the results in a Long Reach village election last year. But a faction within the Columbia Council is satisfied with the status quo. Some members believe Columbia should perform more like a homeowner's association than as a municipal government.

Del. Virginia M. Thomas has volunteered to draft legislation that would allow a referendum on one-person, one-vote to pass by a mere majority vote, but there appears to be no groundswell of support for her proposal. Many council and village leaders believe such a measure, even if restricted to voting issues, might open the door to a proliferation of referendums that would erode covenants in Columbia, and even in homeowners' associations statewide. Such a radical measure would be a mistake, and is unlikely to generate support in the legislature.

That leaves Wilde Lake to test the waters. Other villages -- such as Oakland Mills and Town Center -- may join in. The Columbia Council should be commended for approving the funds to mount a campaign at the village level, a reassuring sign of openness toward possible changes. Meeting the 90-percent requirement may be a long shot, but, at the moment, it's the best shot.

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