By Stephen Jannis,
Special to the AFRO

When Black residents of Federalsburg, Md. packed their council chambers in October 2022 to demand changes to the city’s election system, they had a simple but compelling fact to back their argument: in the 200 years of the town’s history, not a single Black resident has been elected to public office– ever.  

The continuing succession of all-White leadership had persisted– even though the town population is 47 percent African American.

Town leadership promised to consider changes to the current process that requires candidates for council run for election “at large” rather than from districts.  Residents argued “at large” elections prevented Black candidates from winning. 

But several months later, the same body came up with a different plan: they canceled the 2023 election and proposed an alternative system– a system that a recently filed lawsuit alleges is a violation of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. 

The lawsuit, filed by the ACLU of Maryland, the Caroline County NAACP and African-American residents of Federalsburg, says the new plan will not only diminish representation for Black residents, but will lock in an all-White body without a regular election for another year. 

“This plan, rather than remedying the ongoing violation of Black voters’ rights, instead would exacerbate the Town’s ongoing discrimination against Black residents by depriving Black voters of the opportunity to participate in democracy as guaranteed by the Town Charter, unlawfully mandating another 14 months of all-White rule,” the lawsuit argues. 

The suit alleges that the system, which requires candidates of the four member body to run an “at large,” city wide campaign rather than to represent specific districts, makes it nearly impossible for African-American candidates to win. 

“Black voters in the minority are submerged within the larger pool of White voters, diluting their votes and diminishing their ability to elect their chosen candidates,” the suit states.

At a news conference shortly after the lawsuit was filed in April, residents spoke of the difficulties of living in a town where their voices are not heard. 

“It is to my dismay, that my children do not see themselves, I don’t see myself represented in the town council,” said Federalsberg resident Sherone Lewis.

Lywanda Johnson, another resident of the town, said excluding roughly half the residents from a seat on the council is not just wrong, but ignores the message this lack of representation sends to Black residents. 

“It would just mean so much for someone to be in a position of power who is like me, because right now there is no one here like me,” she said. 

Federalsburg is a town of 2,800 residents roughly 30 miles north of Salisbury, Md..  It has a four member town council and a separate mayor’s office. All officials are elected at large on odd numbered years. The elections are staggered so that each council member is up for reelection every two years 

In response to an email from The AFRO seeking comment on the allegations in the lawsuit, Mayor Kim Abner said the city has undertaken reforms to address the plaintiff’s concerns.

“The Mayor and Council of Federalsburg committed to amending the Town’s election system last October, after being alerted to concerns raised by the ACLU, NAACP and Caucus of African American Leader,” Mayor Kim Abner wrote. “The new charter amendments eliminate the existing at-large election system and adopt a two-district system with two Council Members elected in each district, and an at-large Mayor.”

But Debbie Jeon, legal director for the ACLU of Maryland said the proposal does not go far enough. Among the plaintiff’s concerns is that the elections are still staggered, locking in a majority White council until 2025. Another concern is that the new law does not designate a district that would be majority Black. 

“Although the town proposes to replace the at-large structure with two two- member districts, neither of the districts is required to be majority Black in population,” Jeon said. 

The lawsuit asks the court to find that the town’s election system in violation of the 1965 Voting rights Act. It also seeks to enjoin the town to change its election process to a district lead-system with one majority Black district.

Single member districts which represent geographical areas have proven to be better at ensuring diverse representation on local legislative bodies.  A study by the University of Houston published in 2018 found that in municipalities similar to Federalsburg, district representation leads to more diversity among elected officials. 

“Since the 1960s single-member districts have been the method of choice for most local elections because they enable smaller, geographically situated communities to send their own representatives to larger legislative assemblies,” the study found. 

However, as the lawsuit notes, suppressing Black voters on the Eastern Shore has a long and often creative history.

Pocomoke City, just an hour south of Federalsburg, was long governed by a council with just one Black member on council with five seats– despite having an equal number of Black and White residents.  The ACLU then alleged that district lines had been purposely drawn to limit Black representation.

But residents fought back. 

James Jones, who is currently a convener for the Caucus of African American Leaders was one of them, joining a group of Black voters who demanded change.

In 2023, his nephew Todd Nock, was sworn in as the city’s first African-American mayor.  A struggle for equity in town governance he said prompted him to join the fight in Federalsburg. 

“As we move forward it is the concern for the people as a whole to present a system of equality and fair justice, with all voices heard,” he said. “This can only be done with unity before uniformity.”