By Ralph E. Moore, Jr.
U.S. District Court Judge Lydia Kay Griggsby on Feb. 22, blocked a redistricting plan from the Baltimore County Council that included just one majority Black council district and ordered county officials to adopt a new plan by March 8.
Judge Grissby issued an order requiring county officials to adopt a new plan that “either includes two reasonably compact majority-Black Districts for the election of County councilmembers, or an additional County District in which Black voters otherwise have an opportunity to elect a representative of their choice” and complies with the Voting Rights Act .
According to official court documents, “Five of seven districts in the plan that was approved by the county council in December, 2021 were majority White and another had a 46.17% White plurality. Similar to current maps, just one district would have been majority Black at 72.59%, according to data released by the Baltimore County Council.”
Baltimore County voting rights advocates, elected officials and county residents anxiously awaited a ruling from the highest court in the land only to be disappointed once again. They were closely watching a case involving the state of Alabama’s Congressional redistricting plan.
Alabama civil rights activists were recently rebuked by a 5-4 Supreme Court decision that reinstated redistricting maps ruled in violation of the 1965 Act by the state’s lower courts. The February 12th decision by the court reinstates the unruly map based on the upcoming election being too close to make any adjustments. Some justices said redrawing the maps at this point would disrupt Alabama’s election planning.
One central question remains at the center of the discussion over fairness in electoral districts: What role should race play?
Face it, Baltimore County has had issues regarding race (housing, schools, voting) for as long as many can remember. So, when the Baltimore County Council unanimously approved a redistricting plan for its seven districts with one majority Black district already represented by its one Black Council member, suspicion and calls for rejection of the plan filled the air. And then civil rights groups filed a lawsuit Dec. 21, 2021. The U.S. District Court claim accused the County’s Redistricting Plan of violating the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (the one for which John Lewis, Martin Luther King and others fought).
In the lawsuit, the claim was made that Black voters are being packed into the one district thereby limiting the number of Black or persons of color County Council members to one, Chairman Julian Jones at this time.
Jones unseated Ken Oliver, the only other Black person to ever serve on the Council, in a 2014 election. The interesting dynamic to understand is that the Black and Brown population in the County has steadily gone up (now at 48%) while the White population in Baltimore County is actually creeping downward at 52%.
Nonetheless, 6 of the 7 districts are represented by Whites.
Packing Black voters into one district appears to be a bit of sleight of hand. While the one district (the Fourth) is strengthened, other districts are deprived of persons of color that could conceivably elect a Black or another person of color.
The suit argues it is possible for there to be two majority Black districts based on the fact that the county’s Black population is around 30%. Maryland’s Secretary of State, John Willis, reportedly said he, “Believes the county is in a precarious position because when you do start packing a district, you get over 70%, that makes you wonder what the intent is.” The civil rights groups filing the lawsuit are asking the court to rule quickly before the deadline in February when candidates must file to run in the 2022 elections.
The complications to achieving fair voting in Baltimore County go deep. Lawrence Brown, author of the highly acclaimed research study of Baltimore City in America’s system of apartheid, “The Black Butterfly,” said recently, “It starts with racial residential segregation… the voting patterns come from segregation in housing.”
Dr. Brown, who served as a consultant to the civil rights groups who are parties in the lawsuit stated, “What’s at stake
[in the struggle over voting rights
] is equity in the distribution of economic resources to the residents. Everything from sidewalk installation and repair, storm drains and the upkeep and replacement of schools are decided by the persons elected to the County Council.”
The important effects of the redistricting plan were also raised by Delegate Charles Sydnor, III (Democrat, District 44) who said recently, “When the Commission first came out with the plan, not a lot of attention was given to it, I was afraid no one was paying attention to the proposed map.”
“We tried to get police reform in the past but it was voted down. When we tried to pass the HOME Act (the Housing Opportunities Made Equal, which eliminated housing discrimination based on how people pay for housing) in 2019 it took more work than it should have,” said Sydnor.
Black citizens of Baltimore County, the Baltimore County NAACP, the League of Women Voters and Common Cause filed the federal lawsuit in December of last year on Dec. 12, 2021. The plaintiff-group is challenging the redistricting plan approved by the County Council on the basis of discrimination and the unlawfulness of the plan. Bill 103-21 once passed revised Council Districts following the results of the 2020 U.S. Census and its population changes.
President of the Baltimore County NAACP, Dr. Danita Tolson, is quoted on the ACLU’s website as saying, “By adopting this illegal legislation, the Baltimore County Council joins the ranks of infamous state and local politicians throughout the country who are adopting redistricting legislation designed specifically to solidify their incumbency and disenfranchise African American and other minority voters.” A strong statement for the times, especially in light of a recent court ruling in the state of Alabama of all places. Hope for beating back gerrymandered maps, as has been charged in the suit, comes from a three-judge panel that ruled seven congressional district lines have to be redrawn.
The redistricting map was drawn by Republican lawmakers who are in the majority in the Alabama statehouse. Similarly hoped for by the plaintiffs in the Baltimore County case, the judges ruled that the legislature violated the Voting Rights Act “by failing to draw more than one district where Black voters might elect a representative of their choice.” The ruling is being appealed; incidentally two of the judges, who made the ruling, were appointed by Donald Trump and the other one was a Bill Clinton appointee.
The Alabama case may end up at the United States Supreme Court.
Debbie Jeon, Legal Director of the American Civil Liberties Union said in a recent phone interview, “After watching what happened in Alabama I am encouraged by the judges’ ruling. And I believe it gives us really good precedent and some hope.”
All eyes were on the Alabama congressional districts case and the Baltimore County Council district’s one. After John Lewis marched several times across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965 and Martin Luther King successfully advocated to President Lyndon Johnson for the Voting Rights Act, the battle for voting rights for all, as guaranteed by the act and the Constitution goes on today and tomorrow. Challenges to voting rights persist and what is old, sadly, is new again. Hope is being kept alive by Judge Griggsby’s recent ruling, but my guess is that it will likely to be appealed.
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