The time had come in Montgomery County, some critics thought, for county voters dissatisifed with the County Council -- and the system of electing members at large -- to opt for elections by district, to make council members more responsive to issues in their areas.

Critics of the council were unhappy with the bickering of members, with each other and with the county executive, and over controversial votes, such as those in favor of a gay rights bill and the closing of Northwood High School.

But last Tuesday, when Howard and Anne Arundel county residents went to the polls to approve district election measures, Montgomery voters rejected two similar proposals on the ballot.

One amendment, backed by diverse groups, would have created five districts and two at-large seats. The second, which would have established seven district seats, was promoted by former Republican state delegate and congressional candidate Robin Ficker pretty much on his own.

While changing the council by changing the way it is elected was perceived as an underlying concern of the amendment backers, some observers said the pro-districting forces never made the incumbent council an issue.

"There was no compelling reason to vote for it," said Edmond Rovner, special assistant to County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist, who remained neutral on the question. "It wasn't like, 'Throw the rascals out,' "

There was little literature promoting districting, he said. Nor was there a heavy partisan cast to the issue, although the Republican Party -- in a county where a third of the county's registered voters are Republican -- supported one proposal and the Democratic Party sample ballots urged "no" votes on both.

Indeed, the pro-districting forces were joined by many local civic groups and some local chambers of commerce, while several labor groups, the county's League of Women Voters, the county chamber of commerce and the county NAACP fought the districting plans.

The local civic groups' interest was clear: They were likely to have more sway in individual districts of about 100,000 residents than in a county with more than 600,000. Similarly, many observers believed Republicans would have an easier time gaining seats on the currently all-Democratic council if they didn't have to run at large.

Most of those in favor of retaining at-large elections, including five of the seven current council members, feared that district elections would embroil members in local squabbles, and force them to pander to local interests rather than to consider the good of the whole county.

For the Democratic establishment, the interest in maintaining at-large elections was also clear: The system has lead to a succession of all-Democratic councils.

In the end, the voters defeated the five-district proposal, 140,444 to 123,065, while the seven-district plan was defeated by a greater marin both proposals. Districting proponents said they were beaten by money (though there is nothing so far to suggest that one side spent much more than the other) and an electorate that didn't understand what was at stake.

Those in favor of the current system said they won because they were right. "It just goes to show you that, if people will think about the issue and look at both sides, they make the right choice," said Victor Crawford, a cochairman of the antidistricting Coalition to Retain Good Government.

But with both sides predicting that the county would face another vote on districting in 1986, council members may start acting as though they were elected by districts anyway, paying more attention to parochial issues.

What difference district elections will make in Howard and Anne Arundel counties is still uncertain: So much depends on the personalities involved, and nobody knows for sure who will occupy the council seats after the first district elections in 1986.

In Prince George's County, where current council members are the first to represent districts rather than the entire county, some observers maintain there is far more parochialism in council actions than before. Since Democrats hold all council seats, partisanship is not an issue.

However, in Howard and Anne Arundel, the new system will probably give greater power to Republicans. In Howard, where voters had previously defeated a districting proposal, it may also diminish the influence on county politics of residents of the burgeoning and predominantly liberal "new town" of Columbia.

Under the current at-large system, three council members are from Columbia, and the remaining two are from Ellicott City. Not surprisingly, last week's election pitted Columbia residents against the rest of the county. Columbia voted against districting by a margin of about 2 to 1. The rest of the county voted 10 to 1 in favor of it.

In Anne Arundel, as in Howard and Montgomery, the districting movement was associated with conservatives and Republicans. The districting movement there was led by David W. Kelley, a Republican and fundamentalist leader, and it was the right wing of the Republican Party that had the most to gain.

In Montgomery County, the campaign for districting in 1986 has already begun. The Coalition for Representative Government, which led the districting fight this year, met last Friday to plan its strategy.

"We're laying plans for 1986," said Dennis Lavallee, a coalition leader. "We are looking at the fund-raising, the petition drive we will need to get it going. . . . Now we have two years. It gives us a great deal of time to do some more in the way of education."