Lessons from Columbia's elections

April 26, 1994

In Howard County, another council election has come and gone for the city of Columbia -- as inconspicuous and pathetic as those in the past. In the six villages where elections were held Saturday, voter turnout was sparse as usual. In Dorsey Search, a scant 98 people went to the polls. In an urban "edge city" of 70,000 people, no candidate in the four contested races for Columbia Council drew more than 300 votes.

In the wake of this election, as with others, people will see the low turnout through their own interpretive prisms. Re-elected council members will proudly proclaim that the low turnout is a sign of community satisfaction with the council and the Columbia Association it oversees. Others will disagree, saying that people don't vote when they feel frozen out of the system.

Our view is that the lack of participation in Columbia elections is very much an outgrowth of a failed system. The homeowners association that runs the planned city was, quite simply, explicitlydesigned not to function in the way we normally associate with government.

Columbia's founder, James Rouse, revealed as much when he was defending the Columbia system recently in an interview with the Columbia Flier. The theory was that "if we could separate power, authority, which is normally associated with government, from things that people could do together, that we would have accomplished something," Mr. Rouse said.

Those remarks are especially interesting following the death this past Friday of former president Richard Nixon, who served during an era that begat widespread cynicism and disengagement from government. It was in that era of suspicion and distrust that Columbia was born, and we can see why Mr. Rouse's notions about the evils of power and authority may have seemed refreshing in those days.

Today, when apathy is rightly viewed as a growing threat to democracy, those same ideas seem naive. Why have elections at all, were it not for the need to empower some individuals to act as representatives of the majority? And why do anything that discourages participation, as is done in Columbia, by linking voting to property ownership or restricting the number of adults who can vote per household?

Even Mr. Rouse admits that these restrictions were a mistake. The result can be seen every time an election in Columbia rolls around.

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