Redistricting Goes to Court


Once more the intensely political process of redrawing legislative districts is winding up in court. Too much is at stake in terms of political power for those who lost out in the maneuvering last winter simply to lick their wounds.

Latest in the fray is the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the American Civil Liberties Union, which charge the Schaefer administration's plan failed to create as many districts with safe black majorities as possible, as mandated by the federal Voting Rights Act. The state's Republicans have filed suit protesting that Democrats jiggered districts to minimize GOP chances of winning seats.

The suit notes that black candidates historically have had little chance of election except in districts with strong black majorities. While blacks frequently support white candidates, the NAACP argues, whites do not usually vote for blacks. There are exceptions, as Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's victories attest. But at lower levels the exceptions usually come in districts with white-black coalitions or where strong white political organizations put an African American or two on their tickets.

State officials contend their plan preserves as much black political strength as the NAACP version. The disagreement turns on what each side sees as the practical effects of different maps and the extent of racial polarization in voting patterns. The difference is not overwhelming in terms of seats in the General Assembly -- perhaps a dozen seats in the 141-member House of Delegates and four in the 47-member Senate. But proportionately, an NAACP victory would mean a giant increase in minorities in the legislature, which now has 24 black delegates and seven black senators.

This legal battle raises some basic issues about how legislative districts should be drawn. The NAACP suit supports the governor's welcome step toward metropolitan regionalism by creating districts that cross the Baltimore City-Baltimore County border, but the Republicans strongly oppose it. The NAACP suit even goes so far as to challenge the state constitutional requirement that an assembly district be confined within a senatorial district, another pillar of old-time politics.

Mr. Schaefer's redistricting plan prevailed last winter because it successfully juggled political as well as legal considerations. A three-judge federal panel will now examine it with only legal considerations in mind. If the plan fails their scrutiny, it will be back to the politics of redistricting again.

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