Plaintiffs still want one district created to elect a black

November 24, 1994|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Eastern Shore Bureau of The Sun

EASTON -- Minority citizens fighting to change Worcester County's way of electing commissioners are telling a federal judge that they still want new districts drawn that would all but guarantee election of the county's first black commissioner.

Plaintiffs in the voting-rights case, which has gone on for nearly two years, made the assertion in answering a move earlier this month by the commissioners to retain the status quo.

As a result, the stage is set for arguing the case a second time in federal court in Baltimore starting Dec. 2 -- a fight that eventually could end up with an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In legal papers sent Tuesday to U.S. District Court Senior Judge Joseph H. Young, lawyers for the plaintiffs asked that the county be carved into five election districts with one district designed to give blacks the political advantage.

Minorities make up about 21 percent of the county's 35,000 residents, but no black candidate has ever won a countywide election in Worcester's 252-year history. Plaintiffs want one district in which blacks make up 65 percent of the general population and 62 percent of the voting-age population.

Commissioner John E. "Sonny" Bloxom, a leading advocate of keeping Worcester's traditional at-large election system, said he expects the judge to rule in the plaintiffs' favor.

But such a decision is unlikely to have any immediate effect on county elections, he said, because local officials intend to take the issue to the Supreme Court.

The commission election was put on hold indefinitely in September when the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld an earlier decision by Judge Young that Worcester's election system violates the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

In his first hearing, Judge Young rejected a county plan that modified but did not dismantle its at-large system. He ordered Worcester to change how it elects its commission to cumulative voting -- an unusual method that gives each voter five ballots.

The Court of Appeals ruling threw the case back to Judge Young's court and required the county to propose its own election changes, which it did this month. The action also nullified the cumulative voting order, and neither side considers that an option in the latest legal go-around.

Not until recently did the county reluctantly agree to consider setting up a minority district. The closest the county came to proposing a minority district was a plan that would have created a district about 47 percent black. The plaintiffs rejected the offer. American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Deborah A. Jeon said the county's proposed changes were unacceptable because they did not include a district that would give blacks "a realistic opportunity" to put a minority in office.

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