Voting Rights on the Shore

January 23, 1994

When a special federal court panel on Maryland's legislative redistricting ordered further argument last month, it all but invited the NAACP to draw a more compact black-majority district on the lower Eastern Shore than it initially proposed. Thus it is no surprise a majority of the panel has now ordered that one be created in Dorchester and Wicomico counties. And the full panel joins the Maryland Court of Appeals in ruling that the rest of the state's redistricting plan is constitutional and in compliance with the federal Voting Rights Act. There is a common thread to both courts' rulings: City-county boundaries are no longer sacred in legislative districting when other, greater, political needs can't be satisfied without crossing them. Both courts expressly rejected objections to districts that bridge the Baltimore city-county line, and the federal panel commented that it could well be within a state's power to maximize a subdivision's representation for purely political reasons. It's the individual's vote that can't be diluted under federal law, not a subdivision's clout, they observed.

The federal panel further strengthened the cause of metropolitanism by its implied approval of a legislative district that would take black neighborhoods of Cambridge and Salisbury and connect them with a swath of Dorchester and Wicomico counties, including Hurlock, Vienna, and a piece of Fruitland. Precise drawing of the district is left to state authorities, but the court's intent is clear.

While rejecting arguments by the state Republican Party and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People that legislative districts should have mathematic equality and, in the NAACP's case, proportional representation for minorities, the federal panel saw the need for a black-majority district on the lower Eastern Shore.

Although African-Americans make up nearly a quarter of the region's population, they don't win major offices south of the Choptank River unless they are a majority of the electorate. Even when they overwhelmingly support a black candidate, they are swamped by whites who vote en masse for white candidates. That's the sort of situation the Voting Rights Act was clearly aimed at rectifying, and the court has now done so.

There will be some practical problems in defining the new district as the federal panel ordered. The modified NAACP proposal embraces only a slim majority of African-American voters, perhaps not enough to elect a black candidate. Attention needs to be paid to the shape of the adjoining districts. But the fault lies with the political leadership of the lower Shore which continues, nearly three decades after minority voting rights were guaranteed, to stifle black political candidates.

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