EASTON -- Worcester County residents waiting to conduct a County Commission election that has been delayed by a legal battle over voting rights will have to wait longer.
An opinion released late Friday by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., agreed with a ruling by a lower court judge that Worcester's traditional election system was unlawful.
But the three-member panel ordered the matter resolved at the county level. The jurists rejected a lower court judge's imposition this summer of a new, controversial voting system, but declined to suggest what kind of system should be used.
Because they had not received a copy of the new opinion, lawyers on each side of the court battle scrambled yesterday to understand how the ruling affects their case. With the court closed for the weekend, attempts to get copies of the ruling or comments from the judges yesterday were unsuccessful.
"I presume this decision continues the election even further," County Commission attorney Edward H. Hammond Jr. said yesterday.
"I'm not sure what it means," said Deborah A. Jeon, co-counsel for the plaintiffs and the attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union's Eastern Shore office. "I'm optimistic that it's a victory for [us]. The primary objective [of the lawsuit] is getting the old system changed."
Changed to what remained the puzzle yesterday.
Commission President John E. "Sonny" Bloxom said he believed both sides had examined all the options without being able to agree on a solution.
"I really want to see what the appeals court has to say," he said yesterday at his home in Pocomoke City. "It seems that maybe the judges have missed the boat."
Worcester's commissioners, who are nearing the end of their four-year terms, have agreed to continue serving until voters can go to the polls.
Seventeen candidates had filed to run for the five commission seats in the primary election scheduled for Sept. 6. Candidates' names were removed from the ballot when the appeals judges, who are based in Richmond, stayed the election until they could weigh a lower court's order.
That order would have given county voters the unusual ability to cast as many as five votes for a single commissioner candidate.
Black residents of Worcester argued that the county's at-large election system made it nearly impossible for a minority candidate to win a commission seat.
Minorities make up about 21 percent of Worcester's 35,000 residents, but no black resident has been elected to a countywide office in the Eastern Shore county's 252 years.
Before U.S. District Senior Judge Joseph H. Young in April ordered Worcester to replace its at-large system with cumulative voting, lawyers presented several alternative election methods.
The cumulative voting system, advocated by former Justice Department nominee Lani Guinier, would give each voter as many as five votes instead of the usual one-voter, one-vote method.
Cumulative voting has it roots in European elections and has been tried in Alabama, Illinois, New Mexico and South Dakota. A judge ordered a North Carolina county to adopt cumulative voting, but the ruling was overturned on an appeal to a higher court.
The distinction between that case and Worcester's, according to election system experts, is that neither side in the North Carolina suit advocated cumulative voting as an alternative.
Lawyers in the Worcester suit presented a minority district and the cumulative voting systems as remedies.
In Friday's opinion, the appeals judges ruled that Judge Young erred when he ordered the county to adopt cumulative voting.
"A district court should give the appropriate legislative body the first opportunity to devise a remedial plan," the three-judge panel wrote, according to an Associated Press article.
Ms. Jeon said she believes the appeals judges may have left a chance for Worcester to go ahead with cumulative voting if both parties in the suit agree to it.
The federal judges, she said, apparently objected to the way the system was forced on the county and did not comment on the validity of the system itself.
Mr. Bloxom, however, said county officials are not likely to give in on that point.
"The commissioners are not going to vote in cumulative voting," he said.
Meantime, campaigns of most commission candidates are continuing.
"Most people have just slowed their pace down," said Mr. Bloxom, who is running for re-election. "Everybody knows at some point that we're going to have an election."