The election of Wicomico County Council members in "at-large," or countywide, races does not illegally prevent black voters from electing the candidates of their choice, a federal judge has found.
Yesterday's decision by U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis in Baltimore is the first victory for local election officials in a seven-year series of Eastern Shore cases that challenged the constitutionality of at-large local elections.
But voting-rights advocate Carl Snowden said, "There won't be any weeping here." The decision "should not be viewed as a setback."
Snowden noted that the lawsuit, filed in 1987, already had compelled the county to abandon its former at-large election system in favor of one that includes five district council seats and two at-large seats.
One of those seats was filled last year by an African-American.
Earlier suits filed against Dorchester County, Pocomoke City, Princess Anne and Easton also forced local officials to give up or weaken at-large systems that civil rights advocates contended made it difficult for minorities to elect their preferred candidates.
Those changes have helped to elect black candidates.
"There is no question that the political complexion of the Eastern Shore has changed, directly, as a result of the success of these voting-rights cases," Snowden said.
Garbis ruled that the U.S. Justice Department failed to prove the at-large election of County Council members in Wicomico County illegally "dilutes" the ability of the county's black voters to elect the representatives of their choice.
"African-Americans have suffered tremendously from discrimination in Wicomico County," Garbis said.
But Justice Department attorneys, he said, "failed to prove that African-Americans in the county as a whole voted cohesively," and "failed to demonstrate that white voting . . . minimized or canceled African-American voters' ability to elect their preferred candidates."
In 1980, 21.7 percent of Wicomico County's population, and nearly 16 percent of its voting-age population, was black.
Between 1968 and 1988, however, only one black was elected to the County Council. Emerson Holloway, a Republican, served from 1978 until his death in 1981.
But Garbis, in discussing the old, all at-large elections system, concluded that elections data failed to show that voting in Wicomico County as a whole was racially polarized to a degree that a white majority will normally defeat the combined black minority vote plus white "cross-over" voters.
He noted that in the 1982 primaries, the Democratic candidate preferred by blacks received 41 percent of the white vote, while Republican candidates preferred by blacks received 44 percent of the white vote.
"The court cannot find that white support which at times has risen to 44 percent constitutes a white bloc vote which minimizes or cancels the effect of the African-American vote," he said.
In one election, in a district where 54 percent of the voters are black, only 28 votes were cast for the minority-preferred candidate.
Garbis also noted that Wicomico County voters have elected two blacks to the Democratic Central Committee, and a black woman has been elected, after running unopposed, to three consecutive terms as an Orphan's Court judge.
"White candidates actively seek and campaign for African-American support, and African-American candidates are given endorsements from important county organizations, even when these organizations have an almost completely white membership," he said.
The Justice Department alleged that the county adopted the new, "5-2" system (five council members elected from districts and two at large) instead of an all-district system to discriminate against black voters.
Garbis said he found no evidence of that and said it would be "unreasonable" to draw conclusions on the impact of the new system on voting patterns.