What can citizens and voters do about under-representation in Washington County government?
On February 25th, Citizens Above Partisanship hosted a panel discussion of this question at Washington County Free Library in Hagerstown. The event was attended by CAP members and concerned Washington County residents and was covered by local media.
CAP believes that our local leaders must be representative of the diversity of the entire population in order to understand the diverse challenges we face. Increasing diversity in local government is one of our long-range priorities, and hosting this discussion was a step toward being in a position to encourage and support a diverse and qualified pool of candidates for the 2020 election and beyond.
- Harry Jones, former Democratic candidate for County Commissioner
- Sandra Oblitas, Director of the Kasandra Cultural Center
- Andrew Barnhart, former Green Party candidate for the Maryland House of Delegates
- Donna Brightman, former Chair of the Board of Education and Democratic candidate for County Commissioner
In the nonpartisan spirit of our organization, the discussion was moderated by Scott Bryan, former Republican candidate for County Commissioner and current CAP Candidates and Issues Coordinator.
Asked about the effects lack of diversity has on communities in Washington County, Jones pointed out that elected officials rarely engage with communities outside their own once elected. They don’t take the aches and pains of those communities seriously, he said, because they are not their own aches and pains. This leads to a lack of understanding of the challenges different communities face, and a failure of confidence among voters that government will work for their best interests.
Brightman and Barnhart both talked about structural barriers to broader participation in government, including the party-based primary system and the plurality voting method. Open primaries, ranked choice voting, and districted County Commissioner seats were all discussed as possible ways to overcome those barriers. Brightman also pointed out the newly formed Diversity Commission as a hopeful sign.
Oblitas, who immigrated from Bolivia in 2002, talked about the need for better communication channels to reach potential voters who may not understand the value of voting. She admitted that she would like to see a member of the Latino community in elected office, regardless of party affiliation, because such a person would understand the needs and concerns of that community in a way that is difficult for people outside of it. Both she and Brightman also lamented the lack of women in local government, with Brightman pointing out that there have been only three female County Commissioners in the county’s history.
The panel concluded with audience Q & A and a discussion of what citizens might do to encourage more diversity in local government. Jones summarized the answer to that question nicely with a call to get personally involved, saying, “in order to get change, you have to be willing to make change.” We agree – democracy takes work, and we’re grateful to all our panelists for taking the time to work with us.