Several civil rights groups, state legislators and activists are calling on Baltimore County officials to reject and redraw proposed county council lines that they argue violate federal voting laws, warning that not doing so could result in court challenges.
The draft map, approved last month by the county’s redistricting commission, includes just one majority-Black district and keeps most of the council’s seven districts majority white — in a county where people of color now make up 45% of the voting-age population.
The Randallstown NAACP, Baltimore County NAACP, ACLU of Maryland, Maryland League of Women Voters and Common Cause Maryland assert the draft proposal violates provisions of the federal Voting Rights Act by proposing boundaries that pack Black voters into one district and then split Black communities among other councilmanic jurisdictions, diluting the votes of Black, Indigenous and other residents of color.
The map, in its current form, “is simply immoral as well as illegal based on federal law,” said Democratic state Sen. Delores Kelley, who in 1994 was the first Black person elected to the state Senate from Baltimore County after Maryland created a “majority-minority” district.
Speaking during a Tuesday news conference in Towson’s Patriot Plaza, state Sen. Charles Sydnor, a Democrat, said that for the council — which has six white members and one Black councilman — to truly reflect the demographics of the county, there should be at least 3 nonwhite council members.
“This map hasn’t moved us past where we were 20 years ago,” when the county redistricting commission first created the only majority-Black district in the western county, Sydnor said.
Then, Black residents made up 20% of the county’s population while white people accounted for 75%, according to U.S. Census data. Just two Black council members have been elected in Baltimore County’s history after the county created the western councilmanic district, currently represented by council chair Julian Jones, a Democrat.
“I fully expect that we’ll do better than this,” Sydnor said.
Baltimore County’s redistricting commission, which is largely white, unanimously approved a proposal that keeps one “majority-minority” district — the fourth district encompassing Owings Mills and Reisterstown — and moves Towson to the more Democratic sixth district that currently includes Middle River, creating a fifth district that is largely conservative in the northeast part of the county.
The commission has contended that creating another “majority-minority” district is difficult because Black and other residents of color are dispersed across the county.
“I would agree on the surface that yes there could be more” majority Black districts, said Jones, a Woodstock Democrat, in an interview.
“But the question is, how do you get that?”
Opponents, who have proffered redistricting proposals that create at least one additional majority-minority district, say claims that it’s not possible to create another one are false.
A map floated by the ACLU and Baltimore County NAACP, for instance, moves some of Jones’ fourth district electorate to a first district that would then include parts of Woodlawn and Milford Mill, Lochearn, Catonsville, Arbutus and Lansdowne.
In its current form, the map would create a first district that is roughly 47% white and 47% Black, Latino and Asian, with an additional 5% identifying as two or more races.
The Baltimore County Board of Education also will be affected by the councilmanic boundaries, Kelley said. County voters elect seven board members — an additional four are appointed — and there are two Black members of the school board.
Kelley said more school board diversity is needed to resolve “many unmet needs in schools.”
State legislators said it’s unclear what powers may be available at the state level to intervene in the redistricting process.
“It’s really up to the county council to do right,” Sydnor said.
Caylin Young, public policy director for ACLU of Maryland, said the current plan would make the county liable to lawsuits.
The county appointed a five-member redistricting commission to redraw the councilmanic lines, which coincides with the once-every-decade U.S. census. The commission is made up of three white men, a white woman and a Black man. There are three Democrats and two Republicans.
Residents who previously brought up the notion of creating a second majority Black district to the commission said they felt disregarded and unheard.
“I kind of get the feeling that the commission wasn’t listening. And that’s frustrating and unfair,” said Fergal Mullally, who is white and lives in the fifth district in the northeastern part of the county.
Linda Dorsey-Walker, who is Black and a fourth district resident, has a different idea: She wants to see a voter referendum on creating four additional seats on the council, with more than two majority-minority districts.
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“We don’t need to be fighting with one another over seats,” she said. “We just need more seats at the table.”
Critics of the plan also said the county should hold more than one public hearing.
Baltimore County spokesman Sean Naron said County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. did not have a position on whether the proposal should be rejected.
But in a statement, the Dundalk Democrat said he shares “the concerns raised by community members and I urge the County Council to carefully consider” them.
The county charter requires councilmanic districts to be compact, contiguous, substantially equal in population and given consideration to natural, geographic and community boundaries. The council must hold a public hearing on the recommendations and adopt a final plan by Jan. 31.
Five members of the council must approve the plan, and ultimately the power lies with them to alter it.
“We’re gonna have a hearing on what they propose and then we’re gonna take all of that into account,” Jones said.