Each year for more than 12 years, a bill that would allow Montgomery County residents to decide whether to elect County members by district has been proposed during the Montgomery delegates' pre-General Assembly session.

Each year the bill has foundered miserably, without getting even the 10 votes needed to hold a public hearing. It was what one state senator termed a "hearty perennial" -- always expected to be offered, but never expected to win.

This year, however, all that has changed and the bill has become something of a legislative cause-celebre. Not only did the delegates give it a public hearing last month, but legislators who once voted repeatedly against the measure are jumping on board to assure its smooth sailing to Annapolis.

The bill reads the same this year as it has for the past 12 years and the end result will probably be the same if the question eventually goes to county voters. Election by district always makes it easier for the party out of office to win more seats. In this case that would probably mean a Republican on the now all-Democratic council.

But why the sentiment has shifted dramatically in favor of the bill is as much a story about the changing Democratic party in Montgomery County as it is a story about election-year politics.

Ironically, the spearheaders of the bill are not Republicans -- although all support it and they are the ones most likely to benefit from the bill's approval -- but a group of Democrats who call themselves the reform faction of the party. They say they are bent on breaking up what they see as the Lee-Schifter hold on county politics. They say the coming election year, when most state and county offices are up for a vote, will be the test of their strength.

Blair Lee III is a former acting governor of the state and Richard Schifter is the former county Democratic Central Committee chairman.

"What you're talking about is a populist strain versus an organizational strain," says Judith Toth (D-Bethesda), the bill's main sponsor and one of the reform faction's leaders. "And whether we can have an open electoral process where it is possible for someone to run in a district small enough to surmount the cost of beating the Democratic organization.

"Currently the way the way the council is elected -- and the way it's always been elected -- it is almost impossible to break the slate, but it's been proven that when you have district elections, it is possible."

Those who oppose the bill, led by delegates Donald B. Robertson (D-Chevy Chase) and Patricia Sher (D-Silver Spring), argue that council elections by district will lead to a Balkanization of the county and domination by special interest groups and issues. County problems are countywide, they stress, and should be approached from a broad base. Council members should be free, they continue, from the pressure of being responsive only to their district.

"I've always felt that the seven council members were very responsive to the community as a whole," says Sher, who ran on a platform opposing councilmanic districts. "Elections by district lead to parochialism and an attitude of 'I only care about my district.' "

What Toth is counting on -- and what she seems to have won -- is support from delegates who previously opposed the bill. She estimates that at least 11 of the 19 delegates will vote with her. Her strategy was simple: convince fellow delegates that the county is no longer the homogeneous wedge of suburban liberalism it has always been and that the backing of the county's Democratic machine is not enough to win an election.

Her methods were well-tested: calling on an umbrella group of civic associations to support the bill and threatening voter backlash against those delegates who did not endorse it. At the public hearing last month, with few exceptions, most speakers vigorously defended the bill and put the delegates on notice that this was going to be an election-year issue.

One coalition, which has been studying the issue for more than a year, has said it will petition similar legislation onto the 1982 ballot if the delegates do not act.

"Montgomery County is no longer the liberal bedroom community we've always heard it was," says Toth. "It's heterogeneous and a large population out there is under-represented.

"In the past the Democratic party has gone out of its way to appeal to the federal worker, the quote unquote liberal who lives here. . . . It was so identified with the intellectual elite that it ignored anyone who didn't fit that whole . . . , so it's these once-large silent minorities in the county who are emerging and coalescing to support this bill."

Conceivably, approval of the bill by the State Legislature could leave elections in the county much the same as they have always been -- all seven council members elected at-large with five having to live in separate districts and two running at-large. The bill requires the county to vote only on how it wants to run council elections -- there is no mandate for procedural change.

But if the bill passes its first stage and then goes to county voters for approval, most expect to see changes in council elections. The most popular recommendation currently is to expand the council by two members and elect five by district and four at-large.

Similar proposals allowing county voters to determine the method of council elections have been put to voters in Baltimore County, Anne Arundel County, Howard County and most recently, Prince Georges' County.

Those who still oppose the bill argue against it with many of the same reasons that they have used for the past 12 years, but this time around, Robertson and the bill's opponents know they are not fighting with a full hand of votes against the measure. Still, this has not deterred the bill's smaller group of opponents from rallying against the bill and the threat of retaliation. During an interview, Del. Sher balked at the suggestion that a vote against the bill could be political suicide.

"It bothers me greatly that there were numerous veiled threats during the testimony before the delegation that 'if you don't vote for this we're going to get you,' " said Sher.

"I've never worked for a one-issue candidate and have never seen one win in this county, and I don't think that it's going to happen this time."