ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Delegate Brian Crosby[D-29B] introduced House Bill 655 to the Ways and Means Committee back on Feb. 9. HB 655 aims to replace at-large county commissioner elections, that are currently practiced in five of Maryland’s counties, which are Calvert, Garret, Queen Anne, Carrol, and St. Mary’s. These counties would still retain the same governmental structure, except county commissioners would be elected via district going forward.
At-large voting procedures in place in these counties have long been the targets of lawsuits and criticisms that civil rights concerns. One of the main arguments used by Crosby and his panelist who gave testimony in support of the bill said that they disenfranchise minority voters and communities of color. William “BJ” Hall, president of the St. Mary’s County Chapter of the NAACP said that “this bill is about improving democracy, period.”
Currently, the St. Mary’s Board of County Commissioners is made up of five Republicans (the president and the four district commissioners) and votes consistently Republican in larger state and national elections. However, this Republican majority is not free from any political opposition. In the 2020 Election, Donald Trump won 55.7% of the vote St. Mary’s compared to Biden who garnered 41.8%. As of Oct. 2020, there were a total of 73,833 registered voters in the county, with 30,661 Republicans and 26,373 Democrats.
St. Mary’s also has significant variations is in its communities. According to recent census estimates, black residents make up 35.5% of Lexington Park’s population, which is more than double the countywide percentage of 14.9%. It is communities like those in Lexington Park that Crosby said are being neglected by this election procedure.
Crosby said that this diversity within the county is the exact reason why we need this reform saying, “there are different parts of the county that are diverse, more urban, or more rural, and each one of those districts deserves to be represented.”
Crosby claimed the historical context for how and why these systems were implemented by saying “the purpose of the at-large districts was to dilute votes away from minority populations.”
“It’s already been banned at the federal level and it has already been banned in places on the eastern shore,” Crosby said. “I believe, based on precedent, that if somebody was to sue, that lawsuit would, in fact, hold because there are already court cases on this.”
The precedent he is referring to stems from the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which after it passed led to the removal of at-large voting systems at the federal level and spurred many states to do the same. In the 1982 Supreme Court case, Thornburg V. Gingles, a legal precedent for challenging these procedures using the Voting Rights Act was set. Since then, numerous lawsuits have been filed regarding local at-large voting procedures, which resulted in either the outright removal or significant reform to such procedures.
In 2017, a federal lawsuit was filed regarding the at-large commissioner election procedure in Jones County, North Carolina, which used the same election method in practice by the five mentioned Maryland counties. This lawsuit resulted in a settlement that mandated Jones County end the practice, and they would instead conduct district elections like what Delegate Crosby is proposing.
Dorchester County on the Eastern Shore of Maryland has also already done away with their at-large voting in favor of a district-based model.
Despite the legal precedent against these voting systems, there remains opposition to HB 655. St. Mary’s County Commissioner President Randy Guy spoke to his concerns at the committee meeting saying that “[St. Mary’s County] residents have not asked to change the way we vote.” He continued his argument by saying that these are issues that should be decided by the local governments, not the state.
But Crosby feels differently.
“Tell me if you think the opponents would support this, you have to geographically reside in the district to run for state office, but you are elected by the entire state of Maryland,” Crosby said in response to criticisms of the bill. “People have the right to choose who represents them at all levels of government.”
Crosby also made one distinction in his criticisms between the voting system and current elected commissioners. Explaining that it would be hard in recent history to say “that any county commissioner whether Republican or Democrat had any malicious intent. That’s not what we’re saying here.” Rather he said that the local board wants to maintain these systems in the interest of partisan politics saying that the political majority would want to give up on any seat in county government.
Crosby also spoke to what he saw as the benefits of local politics that are competitive especially in St. Mary’s speculating that if the bill passed. “You most likely have a board where the president is Republican, and two solid Republican districts, one solid Democratic district, and then one seat will probably be competitive,” he said. “And what you get out that is a more representative form of government, especially in that competitive seat cause that person is going to have to listen to everybody.”
House Bill 655 is still under review by the Ways and Means Committee. Considering the current Democratic majority in the House of Delegates and the House Majority’s focus on issues regarding racial justice this session, it would seem likely that this bill receives a favorable review and move forward in some form.
This kind of political atmosphere Crosby says is healthy in a democratic society saying, “I think a competitive seat anywhere in the country is a good thing and is a good building block to try to start to bridge the deep political divide.”
We will be sure to watch the status of this bill closely during this session. For more coverage of House Bill 655 and the 2021 General Assembly, stay with TheBayNet.com
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