ACLU Urges Department of Justice to Reopen Voting Rights Challenge Against Wicomico County

Affiliate: ACLU of Maryland
May 9, 2013 12:00 am

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WICOMICO COUNTY, Md. – Concerned that Wicomico County is not taking the steps necessary to address underrepresentation of African Americans in local government despite the County’s substantial minority population growth over the past two decades, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland today asked the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice to reopen its challenge to the County’s racially discriminatory election system. Specifically, the group asks that DOJ revisit the Voting Rights Act challenge the federal government pursued from 1987 to 1991, during which the County adopted its current “hybrid” structure combining five single member districts with two at-large Council seats.

“By using a system that prevents even the most qualified African American candidates from winning more than a single seat on the Council, Wicomico County ensures that its long history of racial discrimination persists today,” said C. Christopher Brown, General Counsel for the ACLU of Maryland, whose path-breaking voting rights litigation in the 1980s and 1990s, led to history-making advances for African-Americans across the Eastern Shore. “The Justice Department’s worst fears about the hybrid system’s racially discriminatory impact have been realized over time. Perhaps now, the Courts will see that and act boldly to ensure that minority voters in Wicomico County are finally afforded the fair representation that has been denied to them for decades.’”

Since adoption of the hybrid structure in 1990, no African-American or other minority candidate has ever won election to either of the at-large seats nor to any district seat except the single district with a majority-minority population, despite several attempts and the increased presence of minorities in the County. The ACLU argues that this pattern of exclusion demonstrates precisely the problem the DOJ sought to address with its challenge in 1990, and urges the United States to renew its challenge to the system in light of these developments.

“Election after election, African Americans in Wicomico County have gone to the polls with hopes of fair representation, but to no avail,” said Mary Ashanti, President of the Wicomico County Branch of the NAACP. “Under the current election system, we are limited to just one seat on a seven-member council. We believe that a renewed legal challenge could remedy this injustice once and for all.”

In September 1987, the DOJ sued Wicomico County, alleging that its at-large method of electing members to the County Council violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. At the time, Wicomico County had a five-member County Council in which all the members were elected at-large. In response to the DOJ challenge, Wicomico County expanded the County Council size to seven, and altered its structure so that five members are elected from single member districts, and the remaining two positions are elected at-large. Only one of the five single member districts has a majority-minority population, while the other four districts and the at-large seats are majority white.

The DOJ considered this change insufficient to remedy past discrimination and make the system fair, and so continued its challenge to the altered system. The case went to trial in federal court in 1991. Despite compelling evidence, the court ruled that the DOJ had not proven that the original plan violated the Voting Rights Act, and that it was too soon to know how well the new hybrid system would work, or whether it would be unfair to minority voters. In its current request to the DOJ, the ACLU asserts that the evidence now shows plainly that the hybrid system violates the Voting Rights Act.

“This is a matter of what is fair, because the way it is now is too one sided,” said Edward Taylor, who served three terms on the County Council, representing the minority district. “It is important to have County Council members that reflect the voices of the African American members of community. No group can function as part of the community if they are excluded from representation.”

The ACLU believes the current 5-2 plan operates to dilute the voting strength of African American voters and thus produces a discriminatory effect in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. As a replacement, the ACLU is recommending to the DOJ a system of seven single-member districts, which would allow African American majorities in two of the seven districts, and establish a more equitable system of representation.

“The change in the county’s governance structure, now with a County Executive elected at-large, makes the old argument that there need to be two at-large council members superfluous,” said Eddie Boyd, Jr. “Furthermore, the seven single member district plan would allow for a fair representation of African Americans on the County Council, consistent with their portion of the county’s population.”

Go online to read the ACLU letter to the Department of Justice.

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