Worcester bias trial to begin Blacks' suit charges at-large elections favor county's whites

November 07, 1993|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Staff Writer

SNOW HILL -- A costly legal battle over how Worcester County elects its government will move from the Eastern Shore tomorrow to U.S. District Court in Baltimore, where civil rights lawyers say they will depict Maryland's oceanfront playground for tourists as a political backwater for minorities.

At the center of the conflict is Worcester's at-large election system, which critics say prevents blacks from gaining a seat on the five-member county commission. Blacks are asking that the county be carved into five districts, with one drawn so that they make up a majority of voters.

Similar lawsuits have been brought against 10 other Eastern Shore counties and towns in the last decade. One by one, local governments agreed to switch from at-large to district elections to avoid going to court. Worcester County is the first to gamble on a courtroom showdown.

Worcester's all-Republican commission is so determined to keep out district elections that it already has spent nearly $250,000 in legal fees, much of it going to Benjamin E. Griffith, a lawyer from the Mississippi Delta region who was recruited to defend the county.

The civil suit is not without its irony. County Republicans, including several who sit on the commission today, unsuccessfully sought district elections years ago when they were unable to make political gains because Democrats outnumbered them by a wide margin. With their political fortunes reversed, the Republican office-holders now oppose any change the elections.

County officials argue that even if there were a need for a minority district, the plan proposed by the plaintiffs probably is unworkable. Because most of the county's blacks live in or near the small towns of Berlin, Snow Hill and Pocomoke City, the proposed district cuts a ragged, meandering swath through the center of the county.

While most voting rights trials are reduced to drowsy statistics reflecting election patterns and demographics, the Worcester case could evoke embarrassing images of a county stubbornly clinging to vestiges of the segregationist Jim Crow era.

C. Christopher Brown, a Baltimore lawyer representing Worcester blacks, said he intends to use the county's history as proof that the current election system keeps blacks out of power.

"Our strongest argument is simple," he said. "Look at what's happened in the last 250 years with the system they have -- a goose egg for black people."

No minority has ever been elected to a countywide office in Worcester's history. Blacks -- who now make up about 21 percent of the county's 35,000 residents -- have lived in the area since before the county was formed in 1742.

County officials insist their election process -- which is called an at-large, numbered post system -- is fair because it draws candidates from five regions while allowing residents to vote for individuals outside their districts.

That way, officials argue, each of the five commissioners is likely to be responsive to all areas of the county.

"If we're going to have district elections in Worcester County, it's going to be because a judge will have told us we must," said John E. "Sonny" Bloxom, president of the county commission and a Pocomoke City lawyer.

Commissioner Reginald T. Hancock, who in 1986 became the first Republican elected to the county commission, noted that Republicans were rebuffed when they attempted to dismantle the at-large system in the early 1980s. So, he said, they launched a grass-roots voter drive.

That effort, coupled with a flood of Republican-leaning voters moving to Worcester County in the last decade, helped the party sweep the commission races in the last election.

"That's how you do it," said Mr. Hancock, who now opposes district elections. "You work and campaign and slowly chip away at the wall."

The commissioners have labeled the proposed minority district "racial gerrymandering" and say it fails to meet minority district guidelines established by U.S. Supreme Court decisions.

Deborah A. Jeon, Mr. Brown's co-counsel and the staff lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union's Eastern Shore office, said they will ask Judge Joseph H. Young to take into account Worcester's history of discrimination.

That tactic is crucial to their case. Voting-rights suits typically depend on data demonstrating that minorities have voted in blocks. But research about black voter trends in Worcester elections is scarce and, in some cases, provides weak evidence that blacks have shown political unity at the polls.

Instead, the lawyers will emphasize how blacks were systematically disenfranchised in Worcester County and other parts of Maryland during the early 20th century.

A 'dual society'

In 1890, Ms. Jeon said, 90 percent of blacks statewide and almost 95 percent of those in Worcester County were registered voters. But with the enactment of literacy and property ownership requirements in the early 1900s, black registration dropped by half.

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