Disturbed by Baltimore County’s redistricting process — which has resulted in a lawsuit against the County Council by civil rights groups — a state senator is proposing legislation that seeks to empower Maryland’s attorney general to intervene when local governments violate federal voting laws.
Sponsored by Democratic Sen. Charles Sydnor III, the bill’s goal is to shore up voting protections for minorities by making it clear that the state attorney general has the authority to apply federal voting rights laws to intervene in local government decisions over redistricting, polling places, early voting access and more, if those decisions could dilute or impair the power of minority voters.
“The circumstances that have occurred in Baltimore County certainly opened my eyes to [problems] that I didn’t know existed here in the state,” Sydnor said.
The Baltimore County Council in December approved new councilmanic districts that retain just one majority-Black district in a jurisdiction that is 30% Black and almost 50% nonwhite, despite warnings from civil rights groups — including the Baltimore County and Randallstown NAACP chapters — that doing so would invite litigation.
The county NAACP joined residents, Sydnor, Common Cause Maryland and the League of Women Voters of Baltimore County in filing the lawsuit, alleging council members violated federal voting laws by packing one district with a more than 70% Black populace and splitting Black voters among other adjacent districts.
The groups said more than one majority-Black district could be drawn, but county officials argued that doing so would split communities.
Democratic County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. has not yet taken a position on Sydnor’s proposal, county spokesman Sean Naron said.
Neither has the ACLU of Maryland, which is representing the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the County Council.
The bill, if passed, wouldn’t affect the litigation the county currently faces, given its timing, Sydnor said. If approved, the legislation would take effect immediately.
Virginia is the latest among a handful of states to empower its attorney general to enforce voting rights laws amid U.S. Supreme Court rulings that have weakened federal protections. New York’s legislature is taking up similar legislation.
“Where you can really impact an election is in local districts — where voting polls are placed, where registration opportunities are placed,” said Roger Hartley, dean of the University of Baltimore’s College of Public Affairs. “That’s where you can really, potentially, diminish turnout or make it harder, in this case, for a protected class to elect a member of their community.”
The recourse available to constituents now is either to sue — a lengthy and costly avenue for the few voting rights lawyers in the U.S. — or bring the matter before the U.S. Department of Justice, which largely does not have the capacity to pursue such charges, said Perry Grossman, a voting rights lawyer and adjunct professor at Fordham University in New York City, estimates that fewer than 1,000 lawyers in the U.S. specialize in voting rights laws.
“These are really hard cases and we need more people to bring them — more well-resourced people,” Grossman said. “There’s real weight behind what attorneys general do. It’s a combination of resources and clout that make them good actors to want to bring into the game.”
But Grossman believes attorneys general already have the ability to sue governing bodies they think have violated constituents’ federal voting rights.
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“If Black voters think the AG should sue to bring a [voting rights] claim on their behalf or on behalf of the state … that’s something that the AG could probably do. And I don’t know why they would choose not to,” he said.
Sydnor said he approached Democratic Attorney General Brian Frosh’s office before the Baltimore County district lines were approved and asked about his authority to intervene. He said he was told the office was constrained in its ability to respond to the redistricting plan.
Frosh’s “authority to enforce the state’s elections laws is pretty limited,” according to Raquel Coombs, spokesperson for the attorney general’s office. Most criminal and civil enforcement generally falls to the Office of the State Prosecutor, she said.
That office did not respond Monday to a request for comment.
Grossman said enacting voter protections at the state level affirms the role attorneys general should be filling to combat voter suppression — especially after the U.S. Senate failed to pass sweeping voting reform and as states like Texas and Georgia seek to restrict voting rights.
Maryland lawmakers could strengthen the proposal by adding a provision establishing “preclearance authority,” which could require jurisdictions to get state approval of any change to their electoral laws or procedures. New York’s bill would let the state civil rights agency or a court decide on the changes.
“If Maryland had a law like that preclearance, it would be less unusual to try and bring the AG into the process,” Grossman said.