This year marks a major milestone in advancing voting rights in our country: 100 years of women’s suffrage.
Though the 19th Amendment granted women access to the ballot box in 1920, it wasn’t until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed that women — regardless of their race or ethnic background — could vote without barriers. Fifty-five years later and many Americans consider equal access to the ballot box a given. After all, here we are, two black women who are not just exercising our right to vote, but who are earning those votes and driving progressive policy changes in our state government.
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However, our insider view also allows us to see that even after all these years, our Democratic process is still flawed. We need to continue to craft and champion policies that will create a more perfect and responsive democracy for all Marylanders.
This year, to honor the fight of the suffragists and civil rights activists and continue their legacy, we are taking aim at a form of voter suppression that is still very much alive and well in America today: gerrymandering. Gerrymandering is a weapon that has been wielded for more than two centuries to chip away at the will of the people. This manipulation of voting maps has been used to bolster political parties and candidates to the detriment of constituent accountability. It also has been used to control certain communities — usually non-white communities — by packing groups together in one district to limit their influence, or cracking up neighborhoods to fracture their power.
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Maryland’s voting maps boast some of the most egregious gerrymandered districts in the nation. It’s time for an end to this voter suppression.
This legislative session we must implement stronger standards for our redistricting process in Maryland that both protect voters against the self-interest of political parties and more explicitly protect and promote the voices of the many diverse communities in our state. As it stands, the Voting Rights Act is the only protection for black and brown communities against discrimination in the redistricting process in our state. But in 2013, we saw the U.S. Supreme Court rollback the protections for historically marginalized communities that were the heart of the Voting Rights Act in the case of Shelby County v. Holder. This opened the door for voter purges, voter identification laws and other attacks on voting rights throughout the country.
The continued assault on our access to the ballot box is why we must remain vigilant in protecting and reinforcing the rights we have gained in Maryland, and work to end all forms of voter suppression. That is why we introduced the Fair Maps Act and challenge every member of the state legislature to pledge to end gerrymandering before the next round of map-drawing begins. The Fair Maps Act (SB 967/HB 1431) will create standards for the once-in-a-decade redistricting of congressional and state legislative districts that is set to take place after the 2020 Census. This bill will require that election districts make geographic sense and respect the borders of existing neighborhoods, cities, counties and other natural boundaries in the hopes that Maryland can relinquish its title of one of the worst gerrymandered states in the nation.
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More than this though, our bill will reinforce the protections of the Voting Rights Act and go further to ensure diverse communities are protected from gerrymanders and that these communities are given an equal chance to participate in the political process. Finally, our bill will require the redistricting process be open and transparent and encourage and enable broad public participation in the process.
After all, that is what our elections are supposed to be about, the will of the people. Let’s make our foremothers proud in 2020 by protecting voters from gerrymandering of all forms.
Sen. Mary Washington (Mary.firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Democrat who represents Baltimore City in the General Assembly and is running for Baltimore City mayor. Del. Jheanelle Wilkins (Jheanelle.email@example.com) is a Democrat who represents Montgomery County.