FEDERALSBURG, MD – Challenging as racially discriminatory and unlawful the at-large, staggered-term election system that has kept Black people out of Federalsburg municipal government for 200 years, seven Black voters joined today with the Caroline County Branch of the NAACP and the Caucus of African American Leaders to file suit in federal district court in Baltimore under the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965. This action comes against the backdrop of a long history and legacy of racial discrimination and oppression in Caroline County and across Maryland’s Eastern Shore. As a result, the lawsuit alleges, Federalsburg’s election practices and structure unlawfully conspire with patterns of racial polarization in voting to empower the Town’s white majority to override and dilute the influence of Black voters, suppress Black candidacies, and prevent Black residents from electing their chosen representatives.
“Now is the time for our elected officials in the Town of Federalsburg to do what’s right, by dismantling the at-large, staggered voting system and implementing voting districts, thereby creating an equitable voting system for ALL the citizens of Federalsburg,” said Sherone Lewis, a Black voter and resident of Federalsburg.
In addition to Sherone Lewis, individual plaintiffs in the case include Roberta Butler, Darlene Pitt Hammond, Elaine Hubbard, Nikendra Bordley, Ryan Haynes, and Lywanda Johnson.
Although the Town’s Black population has grown steadily over time to account now for fully 47 percent of its overall population, Federalsburg is, and always has been, ruled exclusively by whites. To be clear, never in history has a Black person been elected to any Federalsburg municipal office. In Federalsburg’s bicentennial year, the Town’s Black residents seek at long last to change that.
“Black residents in Federalsburg express concern about their lack of representation in the governance structure of the town, resulting in their voices not being heard on many issues of concern to them,” said Dr. Willie Woods, president of the Caroline County Branch of the NAACP. “The Caroline County Branch NAACP supports the residents in urging, without delay, that the year 2023 not only marks the year of the Town bicentennial, but also that it marks the year the Town reformed its current election system to be compliant with the Federal Voting Rights Act, thereby facilitating opportunities for electing a more racially inclusive Town Council.”
In taking this necessary step, Black voters in Federalsburg follow in the footsteps of Black trailblazers like Carl Snowden, Honiss Cane, Charles Cephas, Fannie Birckhead, and Billy Gene Jackson. Working with community and civil rights organizations, those visionary Black leaders spearheaded successful legal challenges to the minority vote dilution embedded in at-large election systems in other Eastern Shore counties and municipalities. As a result, history-making change and community betterment occurred in numerous communities up and down the Shore, with Black voters finally breaking through white voting blocs to elect Black candidates and gain a seat at the table of government for the first time.
“As the town of Federalsburg celebrates its bicentennial a consideration of all people should be at present,” said Rev. James Jones with the Caucus of African American Leaders. “In 1965 the Voting Rights Act was put into place, and continued violation of the law does not credit the town of Federalsburg. Opportunity has been presented for change, but it is neglected by the town. It is time for change without compromise. 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. This can only be done with unity before uniformity.”
In October, 2022, Black residents shared with Town officials compelling, personal testimony describing the devastating impact the existing discriminatory system has on their lives. Initially, this led to Town promises of collaboration on a fair redistricting plan. But after months of stalling, Town officials this month rejected a lawful election plan in favor of an unprecedented proposal: Cancel this year’s elections altogether and lawlessly extend the terms of Federalsburg’s white officeholders until at least November of 2024, while maintaining an election system that violates the Voting Rights Act. This power grab reflecting officials’ unwillingness to yield any control to Black residents, is unlike anything ever seen before in any Maryland municipality. These violations would be felt most keenly by Black voters, whose rights to equal participation in Federalsburg government have been disrespected and canceled out for 200 years.
“The ACLU of Maryland has been honored to work over the course of three decades with pathbreaking Black leaders achieving historic change across the Eastern Shore by challenging election practices that exclude Black residents from the circle of government,” said ACLU of Maryland Legal Director Deborah Jeon. “It gives us great pride to stand today with Black voters of Federalsburg who boldly continue this legacy – seeking to make history by bringing the same transformative opportunity to their community.”
The federal lawsuit filed today asks the court to:
- Declare that Federalsburg’s at-large, staggered-term election system discriminates against Black voters in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965;
- Issue an injunction prohibiting the Town from holding elections under this unlawful system; and
- Enter an order mandating that the scheduled 2023 Federalsburg Town election, and all future elections, be conducted under a racially fair election plan, in compliance with the Voting Rights Act and all other relevant constitutional and statutory requirements.
The Caroline County Branch of the NAACP, the Caucus of African American Leaders, and the individual Black voters are represented by attorneys Daniel W. Wolff, Katie Aber and Cori Schreider of Crowell & Moring LLP, and Deborah A. Jeon and Nicholas Taichi Steiner of the ACLU of Maryland.