A federal judge said Tuesday she expects to decide “relatively soon” whether Baltimore County can use newly drawn County Council districts in the upcoming election or whether the county must hold off on implementing the redrawn map while it’s reconsidered.
Attorneys representing the Baltimore County NAACP, other civil rights groups and residents made their case before U.S. District Judge Lydia Kay Griggsby during a virtual hearing for why they believe the new map violates federal voting rights laws.
The plaintiffs, with the backing of the ACLU of Maryland, sued the county in December, saying that the map the County Council approved unanimously violates the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race.
The map maintains one majority-Black district out of seven in a county where Black residents make up almost a third of the population.
The map’s opponents want to force the county to adopt district lines they say would comply with federal law. They support the creation of at least one more majority-Black district among the county’s six other districts, which are represented by white council members.
Debate during the redistricting process about where another majority-Black district could be drawn revolved around changing the lines of three western districts: the 4th District, which has a Black population of more than 70%, and the neighboring 1st and 2nd districts. The 4th District is the seat of Democratic Council Chair Julian Jones, the council’s lone Black member.
The county argued it cannot create a second majority-Black district without splitting communities and undoing the districts’ compact boundaries. Attorneys for the county also contended it’s not necessary because the county has seen only marginal growth among Black residents since the lines were last redrawn in 2010; at that time, Black residents made up 26% of the population.
Attorneys for the county reiterated those arguments Tuesday as they opposed a preliminary injunction sought by the plaintiffs.
Much of the testimony centered on the suggestion by the plaintiffs that voting in Baltimore County is racially polarized.
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The county said that since there have been few contested local elections between white and Black candidates, it’s impossible for the NAACP to prove the new map would result in the dilution of Black voters’ choices. Attorneys for the NAACP argued that there have been few such elections because possible Black candidates don’t run, believing they don’t have a chance.
Andrew Freeman, an attorney for the NAACP, said “there is a strong pattern of racially polarized voting” based on voter patterns from higher-profile state and congressional electoral races. The county’s lawyers countered that to prove polarization, an analysis should look at which council candidates Black and white residents cast ballots for.
Freeman said if a white voting bloc is discouraging Black candidates from seeking office, “that’s not a mark against Black voters being able to prove there is a [Voting Rights Act] violation.”
Attorneys for the county also said the injunction request came far too close to the start of election season, even with a Maryland Court of Appeals decision to push back the candidate filing deadline statewide from Feb. 22 to March 22.
“The likely result of any ruling by this court is going to push us up to the 4th Circuit [Court of Appeals] — if not beyond,” said Ava Lias-Booker, an attorney representing Baltimore County.
A remedy by the court, she said, needn’t be rushed through this election cycle.
But “there’s a harm to voters” now, Griggsby said, should the court find that their rights have been violated, but decides they “have to wait until next year” for it to be rectified.