Columbia residents who go to the polls Friday or Saturday will be among the faithful few participating in the unincorporated community's annual rite of spring -- a virtual rubber-stamping of a homeowners' election ballot that has few candidates.
The dearth of races will have Columbia officials scrambling -- as usual -- to meet quorums to validate elections with such gimmicks as a flea market, prize giveaways and free admission to post-election parties planned to attract voters.
Only two of eight open seats on the 10-member Columbia Council, the nonprofit Columbia Association's board of directors, will be contested -- posts in Oakland Mills and Kings Contrivance villages. Five of six incumbents will retain their seats unchallenged.
Four of 10 villages -- Wilde Lake, Hickory Ridge, Oakland Mills and Owen Brown -- will have contested elections for village boards, the advocacy bodies that enforce property maintenance guidelines.
Columbia activists offer several theories for the frequently uncontested elections: a lack of compensation, few contentious issues, fear of losing, confusion about Columbia's unusual system of governance and satisfaction with current representation and the community.
About one of every three council and village board elections has been contested since 1988.
Residents are less inclined to run for a volunteer position on a private homeowners association board, such as the Columbia Association, than for political office, said Richard C. Lewis, a former CA councilman.
"There might be some professional courtesy there, and the spoils are not very great," said Mr. Lewis, a member of the Columbia Forum, which has studied Columbia's governance. "In a homeowners association, people are less likely to run when the community feels the job is getting done."
Former Councilwoman Fran Wishnick points out that 60 residents have leadership roles in Columbia -- 10 council members and 50 village board members -- far exceeding most communities' representation.
But village boards sometimes lack candidates to fill positions, including this year in Dorsey's Search and River Hill. In those villages, the newly elected boards will appoint residents to fill vacancies.
The lack of contested races also contributes to perennially poor voter turnouts, with villages struggling to reach 10 percent quorums, activists say. Villages failing to meet quorums must schedule a community meeting to elect representatives.
Town Center, which must meet a 10 percent quorum with no contested election, will have four polling locations to make voting as convenient as possible, said Wendy Todd, village manager.
It's also not unusual for election officials to recruit voters from the ranks of residents shopping at village centers, where polls are situated.
"If we have 15 percent, I'd be tickled pink," said Councilman Gary Glisan of Oakland Mills, the only current council member who has been challenged. "If it's a nice day and people have other things to do, they'll probably do other things."
Unopposed Councilman Michael Rethman of Hickory Ridge said candidates and voters often are scarce because "people in this town are busy. If there were serious problems, people would be out there."
Some say changing Columbia election rules -- which restrict voting to one vote per household in most villages -- and mailing ballots would generate more participation.
An abundance of cakewalks also does little to stir healthy debate on issues, activists say.
"I'd love to see more contested elections," said Dorsey's Search village's departing councilwoman, Evelyn A. Richardson. "We need to talk about the issues more."
The Columbia Municipal League, the citizens group leading a drive to incorporate Columbia, wanted to use the election to stimulate debate on the issue but was largely unsuccessful in fielding candidates.
"We ran into the same indifference everyone else does," said the group's spokesman, Rabbi Martin Siegel.
One council candidate -- Barry Mehta, who is challenging Mr. Glisan, the Oakland Mills incumbent -- is sympathetic to the league's cause. Two Kings Contrivance village board members, Lewis Lorton and George Pangburn, are competing for that village's seat.
The council sets policy, recreational membership rates and the budget -- a $33.1 million operating budgetand $5.1 million capital budget in 1995-1996 -- for the CA, which imposes an annual levy on Columbia property owners to oversee the community's facilities, programs and parkland.
Here is an analysis of the two council races:
* Oakland Mills -- This election could be a mini-referendum on incorporation, with Mr. Mehta, who favors incorporation, challenging Mr. Glisan, who is skeptical about it.
Mr. Mehta, 53, wants to incorporate Columbia as a special tax district or a municipality to make the annual levy tax-deductible, which he says would help sales of Columbia homes. The levy -- 73 cents per $100 of assessed property value -- comes to $547 for a $150,000 home.