Landed gentry

June 08, 2007

The tiny town of Sudlersville (population 391) advertises itself as "the most beautiful and progressive town on the Eastern Shore." If the former claim is open to dispute, the latter was nearly disproved this week by Sudlersville's town commissioners. The five-member board came close to resurrecting the kind of civil rights debacle that recalls the bad old days of Eastern Shore voter discrimination cases.

But in the end, reason prevailed. On Wednesday evening, the commissioners unanimously chose to reject a charter amendment they had previously approved on a 3-2 vote that would have required any future candidate for elected town office to own property in the town.

Such a provision is not unlike the poll taxes or literacy tests of generations past: Making property ownership a requirement ensures only that a community's low-income residents can't participate.

Sudlersville would seem an unlikely place for such nonsense. According to U.S. Census figures from 2000, its homes are mostly owner-occupied and the population is 100 percent born and raised in the U.S. Yet concerns about U.S. immigration policy and the potential for an influx of poor, Spanish-speaking newcomers in the years to come seem to have stirred local passions - and perhaps imaginations.

What likely turned the tide, however, was a little education. The commissioners had to be informed of the numerous court decisions that have rejected property ownership as a condition of voting or holding public office as a violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

In a letter sent last week, the legal director of the Maryland chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union noted that a Takoma Park law "nearly identical to the Sudlersville provision" was struck down by a federal judge in Maryland 35 years ago. "Limiting political participation to those of certain economic station offends our most basic principles of representative democracy," the ACLU's Deborah A. Jeon wrote.

Here's a better qualification for a future town commissioner in Sudlersville or any other elected post: Can the person do the job? Allowing voters to decide who is best suited for office is not only progressive, it's the lawful way to go.

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