After striking out in two previous attempts, backers of a move to have Howard County Council members elected by district acknowledge that their chance of success on the November ballot may be akin to belting a split-finger fast ball into the bleachers.

"I'd say we have a 50-50 chance, but like any citizen campaign, it's difficult to be as organized as we'd like to be," said D. Craig Horn, chairman of Howard Countians for Councilmanic Districts.

The group, which says it has about 200 members, succeeded in placing the issue on the ballot after collecting 13,000 signatures this summer.

But since then, another organization, Citizens for a United Howard County, has formed to oppose the measure, and a hard-fought political campaign has been under way.

The measure, "Question A" on the ballot, would require that the county's five council members be elected in their own districts by voters who live there, starting in 1986.

Council members currently are elected at large and may live anywhere in the county.

In part, attention has been focused on the the election question because it is the only local issue on the ballot. But the longstanding political rivalry between Columbia and the rest of the county has also put fire under the debate, some observers noted.

"I think some of that Columbia versus non-Columbia split still exists, which was the basis for all of this in the first place," said S. Zeke Orlinsky, publisher of the Howard County Times and Columbia Flier newspapers.

Columbia voters -- who make up about half of the county's population -- dominate local elections, and opponents of the election proposal note that the 60,000-resident town would be split among at least three districts if the referendum passes.

It was for that reason that a similar proposal was rejected in 1976 and failed to get on the ballot in 1980, the opponents contend.

Village councils in eight of the nine villages that make up Columbia have voted to oppose the measure, and one has voted to take no stand.

Among the supporters is County Executive J. Hugh Nichols, whose successor, the opponents maintain, would stand to gain in power if the county is carved into districts.

The anti-districting forces have won endorsements from the Columbia Association, which governs the town, the League of Women Voters, the Times and Flier newspapers, all five council members and the NAACP.