Critics of Baltimore County’s redistricting proposal say demographic data supports creating a second majority-Black district, despite claims from County Council members and other plan architects that it can’t be done.
The Baltimore County Council is forging ahead with a draft that maintains one majority-Black district out of seven in a county that is 30% Black and 45% nonwhite. The proposed map is up for discussion during the County Council’s virtual meeting Tuesday. The seven council members have signed on to support the map; it needs at least five votes to pass and has to be approved by Jan. 31.
But community and civil rights groups, including both county chapters of the NAACP, have threatened to challenge the map in court if approved.
The dispute focuses on the 1st, 2nd and 4th districts on the county’s west side. The 4th District runs west of the city line along Interstate 795 and sits south of MD-140, and includes Randallstown, Milford Mill and part of Owings Mills. It’s represented by the council’s only Black member, Julian Jones. Jones wants to maintain much of the boundaries of the current district, which would retain a population that is 73% Black.
The council’s proposed map also would create a 1st District surrounding Catonsville, Arbutus and Halethorpe that would have a population where the majority is Black, Latino, Asian or Indigenous. Supporters have framed the district as a compromise with civil rights groups — not majority Black, but at least majority nonwhite.
The council’s proposed 2nd District would be 53% white and include Pikesville, Reisterstown and part of Owings Mills. It extends to the city line and is roughly bounded by I-795 to the west and Falls Road to the east.
The NAACP, ACLU of Maryland and others say the arguments given by council members against creating a second majority-Black district — that the county’s Black population is too far-flung to combine into two districts; that it could make it less likely county voters elect Black leaders; that it would require dividing communities — don’t hold up when compared with the draft proposal.
“It’s just obvious that there is sufficient minority population, and specifically Black population, in Baltimore County on the west side to draw two majority-Black districts,” said Bill Cooper, an independent demographer working with the ACLU of Maryland.
Opponents point to Jones’ district for support.
In 2001 the county drew its first majority-Black district, comprising 62% of the population. A year later, Kenneth Oliver became the first Black member elected to the County Council. Jones won the district in 2014.
Under the proposed plan, the Black population of Jones’ district would remain at 73%. Critics say that amounts to “packing,” concentrating the voting power of political groups, particularly minority communities, in one district to reduce their voting power in other districts.
“It’s all about keeping the Black vote packed in 4,” said Sheila Lewis, president of the Villa Nova Community Association, whose 375 homes sit a mile and a half west of the city line in Pikesville, separated from bustling Liberty Road by a park along the Gwynns Falls. Lewis’ community would be split between the 2nd and 4th districts; she’s advocating to be moved entirely into the 2nd.
The ACLU and both county NAACP branches have said the proposal violates the Voting Rights Act by packing a majority of Black voters into the 4th District and splitting Black voters among the adjacent 1st and 2nd districts. Those groups have submitted several alternative maps creating at least one additional majority-Black district, as have other county residents.
“There certainly are enough yellow lights here that people need to slow down and take a closer look to see if they can do better by minority voters,” said Michael Li, senior counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program, a nonpartisan law and policy institute.
Complying with federal law “trumps any other considerations,” he said, even if it necessitates splitting communities. And having a district that’s 73% Black, he added, “is a pretty big red flag.”
Council members contend that creating a second majority-Black district would divide west-side communities. Jones said changing his district, by moving precincts from his district to the 2nd, would be “cracking” — a redistricting practice that has been used to dilute Black voting power by splitting Black constituents across multiple districts.
“Those communities have people they’ve been electing and would like to continue to work with,” he said.
Jones believes removing voters from his district will lessen the chances of another Black candidate being elected there and doesn’t ensure a Black-preferred candidate would be elected in the 2nd District, he said.
But Li argues, and recent election results support, that Black candidates can win in districts with a lesser percentage of Black voters than has been proposed in Baltimore County’s 4th District. For instance, supporters of a second majority-Black district pointed to state Sen. Charles Sydnor III, who is Black and was first elected to the House in 2013 in a district where Black residents of voting age accounted for 53% of the population.
“You used to have to have a super-packed district in order to elect a Black-preferred candidate,” Li said. “You no longer do.”
And the ACLU and others say the majority nonwhite 1st District proposed as a compromise to a second majority-Black district will not bolster Black voting power.
Under the council’s proposed map, white voting-age residents would make up 49.4% of the electorate (they account for 46% of the overall population) in the 1st District — that’s 21 percentage points higher than the district’s Black voting-age residents. And just 7% of voting-age residents in the proposed district are Latino — but two of every five of the county’s Latino residents are noncitizens and ineligible to vote, said Debbie Jeon, legal director for the ACLU of Maryland.
“The notion that that district has any opportunity for Black voters and elected candidates is really inaccurate,” Jeon said.
Finally, critics of the plan bristle when supporters defend it by arguing they want to keep communities together. That may be true for Towson — which was combined into one district after complaints about the first proposal — said Ryan Coleman, president of the Randallstown NAACP, but it isn’t true for predominantly-Black communities like Woodlawn and Villa Nova that would be split between districts under the plan.
“All I keep hearing from people is they don’t want to break up Towson, they don’t wanna break up Catonsville; they don’t wanna break up white communities,” Coleman said. “But then when it comes to the African American communities, it’s OK to do that. I’m really getting tired of the system not working for everybody.”
Those decisions have consequences, Coleman said, arguing the decline of Security Square Mall hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves because the community is split between two districts.
Proponents of the map say they’re following the county’s redistricting manual guidance that districts be compact, contiguous, equal in population (around 122,400 for each district with an allowed 5% deviation) and follow geographic boundaries.
Izzy Patoka, a Democrat who represents the 2nd District, said it’s important to unite communities in a single-member district. He’s open to redrawing the 2nd District to do just that, but dubious whether fellow council members would support the change.
“The map that’s being proposed by the County Council is the map that had the enthusiasm to garner five votes,” he said. “There’s no perfect map.”
Experts say it’s not necessarily about electing a Black candidate or someone of color; it’s about choosing a representative who is accountable to the needs of a predominantly Black electorate.
“They’re looking at protecting incumbents instead of addressing the demographic changes that have occurred,” said Gilda Daniels, a law professor at University of Baltimore. “To say it’s hard ... guess what? That’s part of the process,” Daniels said. “They’re taking the politically expedient route.”
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County attorney James Benjamin said the Office of Law is reviewing the map and conducting “legal research on the redistricting issue.”
He declined to comment until the review is completed.
County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., a Democrat, has been largely silent on the proposal, but in a statement urged the council to incorporate community concerns into their proposal and “hopes to see a map that reflects the changes in the County’s demographics over the past ten years.”
County spokesman Sean Naron would not say whether Olszewski supports the creation of a second majority-Black district.
Should the county move forward with its current map, a lawsuit seems inevitable, Daniels said. Baltimore County has a long history of ending up in court over policies or decisions that have been called discriminatory, including recent settlements over housing and hiring at the county’s police department.
The Randallstown NAACP has requested permission from the national NAACP to sue the county should the current plan be adopted.