E. Shore vote put on hold

August 06, 1994|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Eastern Shore Bureau of The Sun

SNOW HILL -- Worcester County voters will join other Marylanders at the polls this fall, but candidates for the county's highest political office -- commissioner -- will be missing from the local ballots.

In a surprise ruling announced yesterday in a landmark voting-rights case for the Eastern Shore county, three 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judges ordered an indefinite delay in the election of the five-member county commission.

While the appellate judges' ruling gives them more time to consider both sides of the suit, it leaves Worcester's aspirants for county commissioner wondering what -- if anything -- they can do next.

The decision affects only the county commission elections, so county residents still will go to the polls in September and November to cast votes in other local and state races.

But special primary and general elections for the commission seats will have to be conducted separately, although no one knows when or under what kind of balloting.

The federal judges gave no indication as to when they would rule further.

Seventeen people, including three of the commission's five incumbents, are seeking the seats. Most already had begun door-to-door campaigns with the impression that they would be running under a new voting system.

Yesterday's ruling follows a decision by U.S. District Court Senior Judge Joseph H. Young that Worcester's method of electing county officials violated the federal Voting Rights Act.

In April, Judge Young ordered Worcester County to replace its traditional at-large, single-vote election system with "cumulative voting" -- meaning county residents being able to cast more than one vote for commissioner candidates they prefer.

The voting method, generally unknown and untried except in a small group of elections across the country, is designed to increase chances for minority groups to win an election.

In Worcester's case, cumulative voting would allow a voter to distribute five votes among the candidates or give all to one candidate.

Civil rights activists hailed the April decision as a way to give blacks, who make up about 21 percent of the county's 35,000 residents, a voice in local government. No black has been elected to the commission in the county's 252-year history.

Attorneys for the all-white, all-Republican county commission appealed Judge Young's decision and, at a hearing last month in South Carolina, asked the higher court to stay his order for implementing cumulative voting until a final ruling is made on whether the old election system is illegal.

The three appellate judges who ruled were William W. Wilkins Jr., Karen Williams, and G. Ross Anderson Jr.

Yesterday's news reached some of the candidates while they were campaigning.

"I was rather shocked," said Honiss W. Cane Jr., one of nine Democratic candidates and the favorite of the local Voters Rights Coalition.

Mr. Cane, the lead plaintiff in the suit and a black Pocomoke City resident, said he had spent $900 on campaign signs that depicted a handshake and the slogan "Give Me Five," an appeal for black and white voters to give all their votes to him.

"It's like a big rock fell on your head," said Terry H. Saxon, a Democratic candidate from Berlin. "I'm disappointed that the election is not being held. It's one more indication of how obstructionist our current group of representatives has been."

On Tuesday, three days before the judges' decision was made public, Mr. Saxon and several dozen county residents confronted two commissioners outside their Snow Hill meeting room and demanded that the county withdraw its appeal of Judge Young's ruling.

Critics of the county's role in the litigation have charged that the more than $400,000 already spent in legal fees defending the old election system has been wasted.

"They better be prepared to face an angry county," Mr. Saxon said yesterday, placing blame for the delay in this year's commission election on the incumbents.

No one is sure what having a second election solely for the commission seats will cost. But the county already has spent $1,500 on brochures explaining the cumulative election system. The literature was to have been mailed at a cost of $4,000 to voters yesterday, said election board supervisor Sheila Jones. But the mailing was stopped at the last minute when word of the judges' decision was known.

"We were told by a judge to prepare for a primary and a general election under cumulative voting," she said. "So that's what we were doing."

Lawyers on both sides of the voting-rights suit said the ruling could mean good news for their clients.

Benjamin E. Griffith, a Mississippi lawyer hired by the county, said the action means that the appeals court is seriously considering his arguments against the use of cumulative voting and Judge Young's ruling that the county's old election system is a violation of federal law.

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