Worcester County is being told by a federal judge in Baltimore to adopt a new, hybrid method of electing commissioners that would apply one set of rules to primary elections and a different set to general elections.
Such a variant on traditional voting systems for local government would be unique in Maryland, at least.
U.S. District Senior Judge Joseph H. Young's new order is the latest development in a 2-year-old voting-rights fight to determine how Worcester countians will elect commissioners. A group of black citizens is pushing for a method that would heighten the chances of a minority commissioner being elected for the first time in the county's 252-year history.
Under the judge's order, for primary elections, Worcester County would conduct its voting for the five-seat commission by setting up five single-member districts. Each voter in each district would have a single vote to cast for a commissioner.
Because most of Worcester's black voters are registered as Democrats, one of the districts would be drawn to give minorities the edge in picking their own candidate. The judge ordered that such a district proposed by the County Commissioners be used.
However, for general elections, the judge ordered that a rare "cumulative voting" system be applied. That would mean all county voters could cast ballots for a single candidate or distribute their five commissioner votes in other combinations among the five candidates.
"Coalitions of voters will be free to cast their ballots on the basis of race, region, political issue or any other consideration and have a real chance of electoral success while board members will still be beholden to every county citizen," Judge Young wrote.
Judge Young's order was signed Friday but made public yesterday after being mailed to lawyers for county government and those pushing for change.
A spokesman for blacks trying to alter the way the county elects commissioners said she would like more time to study the order. But Worcester County commissioners immediately said they likely will appeal this latest order in a court battle that began two years ago.
The judge also ordered that an election for the county commission be conducted no later than Nov. 7. The continuing courtroom battle put last summer's primary and last fall's general elections for county commissioners on hold.
The five commissioners, whose four-year terms normally would have expired in December, have remained in office.
The unusual order came nine months after Judge Young surprised lawyers on both sides when he told Worcester County to replace its traditional at-large voting system -- both the primary and general elections -- with cumulative voting.
That decision was nullified last September when the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, responding to an appeal by the county, agreed with Judge Young that Worcester's at-large election system violates the 1965 Voting Rights Act. But, the court continued, the county should propose its own election changes.
Those proposed changes and arguments against them were presented to Judge Young in early December, resulting in the orders revealed yesterday.
At least on the surface, Judge Young's latest ruling appeared to mollify some of the concerns voiced by county officials during that court hearing in Baltimore.
Worcester lawyers argued then that it was important that all parts of the county be represented in local government. They said that if an election system favored candidates from the more populous northern end of the county -- the location of Ocean City and Ocean Pines -- then needs of residents in the rural southern end could be overlooked.
In his order, Judge Young tried to address that issue as well as the larger question of how to boost chances of a black candidate getting elected to office on a countywide basis.
"It's an interesting and novel remedy," said American Civil Liberties lawyer Deborah A. Jeon, co-counsel for the plaintiffs. "I need to think this through before I can form a final opinion about it."
Ms. Jeon said the judge's selection of a specific primary-election district where blacks make up the majority of voters in their political party does not include the Pocomoke City residence of Honiss W. Cane Jr., the lawsuit's lead plaintiff and a candidate whom many counted on as becoming Worcester's first elected black commissioner.
"I would not write off the possibility that a black would be elected under this plan," she said. "But it might not be Honiss."
Less circumspect about the judge's decision was John E. "Sonny" Bloxom, a county commissioner who opposes changing the county's election system.
"We're going to appeal it, and we had planned on doing that no matter how it came out," he said. "It's a race-based plan, and we don't think that's fair to anyone."
Even before the December hearing in Judge Young's courtroom, Worcester officials announced plans to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. Mr. Bloxom said the county may hear by February whether the Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case.
Minorities make up about 21 percent of the county's 35,000 residents, but no black candidate has won a countywide election in Worcester history.