ACLU, NAACP Urge Attorney General Gansler to Recommend Exclusion of Prison from Somerset Minority Voting District

Affiliate: ACLU of Maryland
February 22, 2010 12:00 am

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PRINCESS ANNE, MD – Weighing in on an important civil rights issue in Somerset County, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland (ACLU) and the Somerset County Branch of the NAACP (NAACP) have written to Maryland Attorney General Douglas Gansler to make the case for why it is advisable to exclude the non-voting inmate population of Eastern Correctional Institution (ECI) from the population count when the county next undertakes redistricting of its election system for county offices. The organizations’ letter follows up on a request for a legal opinion on the issue submitted by state Delegate Veronica Turner and the Legislative Black Caucus on January 20, 2010.

Somerset County is 42 percent African American in population, but never in history has it elected or appointed an African American to its County Commission or any top County job. This is despite the fact that one-quarter of the County’s college-educated population is African-American.

“Given Somerset County’s diversity, this is perhaps the most extreme case of racially segregated government remaining in America today. So it is hard not to wonder if the County’s inclusion of non-voting inmates in the minority district perpetuates the problem,” said Debbie Jeon, Legal Director for the ACLU of Maryland. “Fortunately, the fix for this is easy, and would generally make the election system a fairer, more balanced one – benefiting black and white residents alike.”

The NAACP and the ACLU believe that excluding the non-voting inmate population from the redistricting base would be completely consistent with federal and state law, and would more equally apportion voting power between the districts. Moreover, in light of the history and legacy of racial injustice that continue to haunt Somerset County, such a change to the county’s election system would better keep with the spirit of the Voting Rights Act.

“I deeply believe it is past time for change in the County of Somerset,” said Kirkland J. Hall Sr., President of the Somerset County Branch of the NAACP. “A favorable opinion from the Maryland Attorney General on this request by the Legislative Black Caucus would be a monumental first step in the process for diversity in county government. The final step, however, will be to energize and register all eligible voters to actively participate in the voting process.”

The Somerset County Task Force on Diversity, organized following a report by the Somerset NAACP and ACLU of Maryland detailing serious racial disparities in county government employment and wages, believes that the current practice of including non-voting prisoners in the district voter rolls has diluted minority representation in the county. In November 2009, the Task Force adopted as part of a package of recommendations a proposal to ask the Maryland Attorney General for an opinion on the advisability of excluding the prison population of ECI from the population in Somerset’s minority district. The Somerset County Board of Commissioners recently approved the Task Force’s recommendations.

Legal memo prepared by ACLU of Maryland Legal Director Deborah Jeon and ACLU-MD’s Skadden Fellow, Ajmel Quereshi.

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