Worcester ordered to aid blacks' election chances

January 08, 1994|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Staff Writer

Worcester County was ordered yesterday by a U.S. District Court judge in Baltimore to change how it elects its government so that minority voters can have a better chance of winning a seat on the County Commission.

Judge Joseph H. Young gave Worcester officials 60 days to prepare a new election plan that would enable blacks, who make up about 21 percent of the county's 35,000 residents, to elect the first minority commissioner in the county's 252-year history.

Because the Eastern Shore county uses an at-large election system easily controlled by white voters, plaintiffs in the voting rights case argued, it is impossible for a black to gain a seat on the five-member commission.

Judge Young agreed.

"Even under the best of circumstances," he wrote in a decision made public yesterday, "the at-large system debases the value of the minority's political strength."

Civil rights lawyers hailed the judge's 21-page opinion, saying it could rid the Eastern Shore of its last vestiges of black exclusion from local politics.

"In a sense, it's hopefully the end of an unfortunate era on the Eastern Shore," said C. Christopher Brown, a Baltimore lawyer who represented four blacks in their suit against the county.

TC He said he thought the voting rights decision could have national significance.

Similar suits have been brought against 10 other Eastern Shore counties and towns in the last decade. Worcester County officials decided to fight the suit, but the other jurisdictions avoided trials by changing their electoral systems.

In nine of the 10 other jurisdictions, blacks gained political power in subsequent elections.

John E. Bloxom, a lawyer in Pocomoke City who is president of the Worcester County Commission, said yesterday that county officials will meet Wednesday with their lawyer to decide whether to appeal Judge Young's ruling.

Fighting the suit has cost Worcester taxpayers nearly $300,000 in legal fees, most of that money going to Benjamin E. Griffith, a Mississippi lawyer the county hired last year.

The prospect of spending more money on an appeal is a consideration county officials cannot ignore, Mr. Bloxom said.

"It's going to be an issue no matter what side you're on," he said. "But I've had people come up to me and say we should spend whatever it takes."

Blacks had asked that the county be carved into five election districts, with one drawn so that they constitute a majority of voters. Judge Young did not spell out what the political remedy ** should be, although he did not say the proposed districts were unworkable.

Worcester County officials were critical of the plaintiffs' proposed election districts, saying they were oddly shaped and amounted to racial gerrymandering.

Deborah A. Jeon, Mr. Brown's co-counsel and the staff lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union's Eastern Shore office, said the county has several options, including adopting a cumulative voting system under which each voter could cast five ballots for a single candidate.

Honiss W. Cane Jr., a plaintiff and the only black on the Pocomoke City Town Council, called the judge's ruling a victory that still must be won at the voting booth with the election of a black to the County Commission.

"Now we will have to get together and find a good candidate," he said.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs said they feared that Judge Young would rule against them by basing his opinion on last summer's U.S. Supreme Court Shaw vs. Reno decision. The court rejected a North Carolina congressional district, saying it was gerrymandered.

Mr. Brown said he considers Judge Young's action on the Worcester case significant because it is the first such ruling to follow the North Carolina case.

He called yesterday's ruling a step forward in gaining political equality for minorities but said changes in the election system do not have to be permanent.

"It may be that someday we will get to a point in this nation when race is an insignificant factor," he said. "When that day comes, any county can change its system."

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