Fighting for Fair Representation in Wicomico County

 

No group of people can function as part of a community if they are excluded from representation. And nobody understands that better than people like Edward Taylor, former Wicomico County Council Member.

 

Edward Taylor has served three terms on the Wicomico County Council, representing the minority district - which because of the Council's election system is the only position African Americans, can effectively be elected to and hold.  This, despite the fact that Wicomico's population is increasingly diverse, with African Americans now making up 25 percent of the county's population, and minorities making up 34 percent.   Whites now make up just 66 percent of the County populace, but for over two decades have held 86 percent of the power on the County Council.

 

To Edward Taylor and many others in minority community, that just doesn't seem fair or equitable.

 

Since the adoption of a hybrid structure of 5 single member districts and 2 at-large districts 23 years ago, no African-American or other person of color has ever been elected to either of the two at-large seats or to any of the other four district seats of the Wicomico County Council, despite many attempts and the growth of communities of color.  The only position on the Council that African Americans have ever held is the seat from the one majority-minority district.

 

This current election system was adopted by Wicomico County after the County was sued under the Voting Rights Act by the U.S. Department of Justice in September of 1987.  Before the hybrid structure, Wicomico County had a five-member County Council in which all members were elected at large. It was in response to this legal challenge that Wicomico County adopted this new hybrid structure in 1990 and expanded the Council size to seven members, where five members are elected from single member districts and the remaining two are elected at-large.

 

Yet, even with this change, the Department of Justice considered the electoral structure to still be unfair and continued to pursue its challenge. 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 prove to be unfair.

 

Since 1991 however, evidence of the plan's unfairness has continued to accumulate. A report by Dr. Steven P. Cole, "Wicomico County, MD Summary of 2006 and 2010 Racial Bloc Voting Analyses for Interracial County Council Contests" shows that the white voting bloc continues to unite to prevent African American candidates from winning at-large positions -- often the Council's leadership positions-- despite the fact that African American voters have remained a cohesive voting group. Since the adoption of the hybrid plan, not one African American candidate has successfully won election to an at-large position on the City Council.

 

Now, in 2013, the ACLU of Maryland believes that enough time has passed to clearly see that the DOJ's fears about the racially discriminatory impact of this electoral structure have come true. That is why this week, the ACLU is requesting that the DOJ reopen their Voting Rights Act challenge in Wicomico. The ACLU is also recommending to the DOJ an alternative electoral structure that would have seven single-member districts, which would allow African American majorities in two of the seven districts and establish a more just system of representation.

 

In addition to discrimination faced from Wicomico County itself, African Americans in Wicomico were shut out from elective municipal and state offices for many years. Shockingly, until the ACLU of Maryland and national NAACP filed a lawsuit in 1992, no African American candidate, in all of history, had been elected to the Maryland General Assembly from the Eastern Shore. And not just in Wicomico County either, but in jurisdiction after jurisdiction, it was only after lawsuits and court mandated change, that African Americans were finally elected to offices across the Eastern Shore.

 

In that case, the court agreed with the ACLU and the NAACP that the multi-member electoral structure diluted the vote of African Americans on the Eastern Shore, and to resolve the challenge the state created a new single member delegate district from portions of Wicomico and Dorchester Counties. As a result, in 1998 Rudolph Cane became the first African American in history to be elected to the Maryland General Assembly from the Eastern Shore. Cane still holds that seat today.

 

By finally affording African Americans the fair representation that they have waited decades for, reopening DOJ's legal challenge could be one giant step towards addressing Wicomico County's long, persistent history of racial discrimination.

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