Worcester gets new voting system

April 07, 1994|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Eastern Shore Bureau of The Sun

EASTON -- Plaintiffs in a Worcester County voting-rights suit said yesterday they will celebrate a federal judge's unusual order that would allow voters to cast more than one vote for the same county commission candidate on Election Day.

Challengers to the county's system of voting for county commissioners said the order by U.S. District Senior Judge Joseph H. Young marks the death of the county's at-large election system.

"We'll eulogize it, funeralize it, bury it," Saunders Marshall, a Pocomoke City resident who heads the county's Voting Rights Coalition, said of the system. The group has been fighting to revise the county's system so minority voters will have more equitable representation.

However, the county's commissioners voted almost immediately to appeal the decision to a higher court -- continuing a costly legal battle over providing minorities more power in the voting booth.

Judge Young, ruling Tuesday in federal court in Baltimore, ordered the county to permit the rarely used system of balloting for county commissioners.

He gave county officials 60 days to implement what is known as a cumulative election system, a fairly new method that would give each voter five votes to cast for candidates running for the five-seat county commission.

Under the at-large cumulative system, a voter may distribute the five votes among candidates, or give all of them to one candidate.

Cumulative voting has been used only in the last five years to resolve legal impasses in similar cases filed under the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965.

"It might just revolutionize the voting pattern in Worcester County," said Mr. Marshall.

Blacks, who constitute about 21 percent of Worcester's 35,000 residents, have never won a commission seat in the county's 252 years.

Arguing that the county's traditional at-large, single-vote election system diluted minority political power, the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People brought suit against the commissioners in 1992 to require a change in the way officials are elected.

The court order came after lawyers on both sides were unable to agree on a new election method. Judge Young ruled Jan. 7 that the county's elections were biased against minorities.

Benjamin E. Griffith, a Mississippi lawyer hired by Worcester County to fight the suit, characterized cumulative voting as "experimental and contrary to most election laws."

He said yesterday that advocates of the method can succeed only if voters back candidates along color lines. "It exacerbates racial bloc voting . . . and really creates a problem in terms of the democratic process," he added.

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