ACLU sues town over voting laws Only residents should vote, suit says

February 17, 1993|By Norris P. West | Norris P. West,Staff Writer

You don't have to live in Princess Anne to vote there. All you have to do is own $1,000 worth of property in the Eastern Shore town.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Baltimore yesterday in an attempt to change the policy of allowing nonresident property owners to vote in municipal elections in the Somerset County town of 1,666.

The suit says the policy weakens the voting strength of poor blacks in favor of wealthier white property owners. Most of the nonresident property owners are white, the ACLU says.

Town Manager Johanna B. Volandt said yesterday that she plans to recommend to the town's commissioners that Princess Anne abandon its nonresident voting policy.

"We have no strength to fight the ACLU," Ms. Volandt said. "If 90 or 99 percent of the country is in compliance with these laws and we're the last vestige, we will change our charter."

Saying the lawsuit was not necessary, Ms. Volandt said officials sent the town's voting records to the ACLU after being contacted late last year.

"It's bewildering to me," Ms. Volandt said of the lawsuit. "We're very small down here, and we've complied with their requests. It would seem to me that communication would settle this whole matter."

Deborah A. Jeon, an ACLU attorney, said the practice of "property-qualified voting," is rare in much of the United States but exists in several of Maryland's Eastern Shore communities.

"This has been a really big issue on the lower Shore the last few months," said Ms. Jeon. "It's a big deal in places like Salisbury where landlords are fighting to keep this system in place."

Other towns that allow nonresident property owners to vote are the Eastern Shore communities of Pocomoke City, Berlin, Crisfield, Centreville, Fruitland and Secretary, and the Cecil County towns of Rising Sun and North East, the civil liberties group says.

Ms. Jeon said the suit was filed against Princess Anne because 12 percent of its registered voters did not live in the town. In Salisbury, by comparison, 4 percent of voters were not residents.

She said her organization is hoping that the federal lawsuit against Princess Anne will prompt other towns to remove laws that allow property-qualified voting.

But she said the ACLU may file separate suits against other municipalities.

The person named as plaintiff is Craig Mathies, a black resident of Princess Anne who claims that the town's law violates the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and Maryland law by diluting black voting strength.

The suit charges that the town's law prevents blacks from gaining their fair share of seats on the town's board of commissioners, although they constitute slightly more than half the population.

Only one of the five town commissioners is black, despite the change from at-large voting to districts in the 1980s, the suit says.

The town is broken up into two districts -- one majority white, one majority black. But the districts did not take into account nonresident whites who owned property in the black district, court papers say.

Eighty of the 103 nonresident voters in Princess Anne are white, with property holdings in both districts, court papers say. The suit charges that black voting strength is diluted when whites vote as a block in the majority black district to defeat candidates preferred by blacks.

The suit is asking the federal court to declare Princess Anne's law to be in violation of the Voting Rights Act, the Fourteenth Amendment and state law, and to order it to register as voters only people who live in the town.

"The rich can buy a lot of things in this world," Ms. Jeon said, "but no one ever should be able to buy votes."

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