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Wicomico's voting rights choice

The Eastern Shore's civil rights history is not a happy one. From the lynchings of the 1930s to the Cambridge riots of the 1960s, the Shore has struggled with race relations. Much of that is in the past — although perhaps not entirely.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, civil rights groups used federal Voting Rights Act lawsuits (or in some cases, the threat of them) to convince towns and counties with large black populations to create voting districts with majority-minority populations. The effort had predictable results: For the first time in history, many of these jurisdictions elected African-Americans to public office.

Last month, the American Civil Liberties Union took up that quarter-century old cause again. The group filed a formal request with the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division to investigate how Wicomico County elects its county council.

The problem? The county elects five members from single-member districts and two at-large to effectively dilute the one district where blacks hold a majority. No African-American has ever been elected to represent the at-large districts or to any other county-wide office.

That kind of polarized voting pattern is what the Voting Rights Act was meant to address. The ACLU warned the 5-2 system was likely to be problematic 22 years ago, and it has been proven correct. Since the hybrid system was adopted, the county's African American population has grown from 24.1 percent of the county to 24.9 percent, yet blacks remain consistently underrepresented in county government.

We have heard the arguments that favor at-large members before. Advocates claim that single-member districts foster political divisiveness and that the black community has simply failed to nominate qualified candidates. But the facts suggest the county's problems with race relations run deeper than that.

A study of 2006 and 2010 voting patterns in the county found strong evidence of continued racial polarization. In the 2006 election, an unsuccessful African American candidate for an at-large council seat won nearly 100 percent of the black vote but received less than 25 percent of the non-black votes. Under those circumstances, it would be patently unfair to foster a voting system that amplifies the power of the racial majority.

Nor would this be the first time the county has sought to preserve voting systems that made it more difficult for blacks to participate. Even after Wicomico and other Eastern Shore counties made changes to comply with Voting Rights Act transgressions, the county's seat — Salisbury — still maintained a voting system that gave out-of-town property owners, the vast majority of whom are white, the right to cast ballots in municipal elections.

It took another ACLU lawsuit to convince Salisbury's leaders to end the practice. And that was after the ACLU filed a similar federal lawsuit against the nearby town of Princess Anne and the town had agreed to stop.

We would urge Wicomico County to voluntarily embrace the single-member district system that many other Maryland counties have used successfully. If not, we would expect the Justice Department to revisit a matter that should have been settled many years ago. Wicomico is now governed by a county executive elected at large (which wasn't the case two decades ago) and doesn't need this last vestige of racial discrimination.

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