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Politics

Judge strikes down new map of Baltimore County Council districts, saying it would disadvantage Black voters

Baltimore County officials are reviewing their options after a federal judge blocked the county from using its newly drawn map of County Council districts, saying the boundaries would diminish Black voters’ opportunity to elect their chosen candidates.

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U.S. District Judge Lydia Kay Griggsby ordered the county Tuesday to adopt a new redistricting map that either includes two “reasonably compact” majority-Black districts or an additional district that meets the requirement of the federal Voting Rights Act and in which Black voters “otherwise have an opportunity to elect a representative of their choice.”

She said the new boundaries must be adopted by the county in two weeks — “on or before March 8.”

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The County Council had voted unanimously to approve the new map late last year.

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. on Thursday expressed renewed concern about a map. In December he’d urged council to incorporate community concerns, saying he hoped to see a map “that reflects the changes in the county’s demographics over the past 10 years.”

“I’ve consistently shared my concerns regarding the council’s proposed map — a concern now affirmed by the court,” Olszewski said Thursday in a written statement. “I urge the County Council to take every opportunity to support greater minority representation.”

Democratic Council Chair Julian Jones said via a text message Wednesday that officials were reviewing the decision and their options.

“Although the judge’s decision is not what I expected, our legal team will review the judge’s decision and explore our options,” wrote Jones, who became the first African American person to chair the council when he was elevated to the role in 2019. “Once we fully understand our options, we will then decide on a course of action.”

Jones also said he believed the county could ask the judge to reconsider her order or appeal it to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, but no such decision has been made. He has represented the 4th District, which includes Woodlawn, Randallstown and parts of Owings Mills and Reisterstown, for the past seven years.

The case was filed by attorneys representing the Baltimore County NAACP and other civil rights groups, who sued the county with the backing of the ACLU of Maryland in Maryland, arguing the new map would violate the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race.

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That map maintained one majority-Black district out of seven in a county where Black residents make up almost a third of the population.

The county is divided into seven single-member districts, which elect one council member each.

The plaintiffs support the creation of at least one more majority-Black district among the county’s six other districts, which are represented currently by white council members.

The county argued it could not create a second majority-Black district without splitting communities and undoing the districts’ compact boundaries.

It also said the injunction request came too close to the start of election season, even with a Maryland Court of Appeals decision to push back the candidate filing deadline statewide from Feb. 22 to March 22 because of a legal challenge to the state’s new map for congressional districts.

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But Griggsby suggested it would not be a hardship to redo the county map, which will first be used for the June 28 primary.

“The county has ample time to revise its redistricting plan to comply with the Voting Rights Act,” the judge wrote. “This task will be made easier and less time-consuming, because plaintiffs have already provided two viable options for creating two majority-Black districts in the county.”

She wrote that while the county has made “important strides” to remedy discrimination in housing, education and employment, “there can be no genuine dispute that past discrimination in these areas continues to hinder the ability of Black county voters to participate effectively in the political processes.”

Griggsby was nominated by President Joe Biden and confirmed by the Senate in June, making her the first woman of color to serve as a federal judge in the state.

The council unanimously approved the map in December. The one majority-Black district had 73% Black residents in a county that is 30% Black.

“We’ll see you in court,” the ACLU of Maryland tweeted shortly after the vote. “The Voting Rights Act isn’t optional.”

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The suit was filed by the county NAACP, the League of Women Voters of Baltimore County, Common Cause-Maryland and seven voters.

“This is a huge win for the many Black voters, community leaders, and civil rights organizations that challenged Baltimore County’s illegal redistricting plan,” according to a statement released by Common Cause-Maryland that it said was on behalf of the plaintiffs and their lawyers.

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“We are determined to ensure that a fair map is created with at least two majority-Black districts that afford Black voters a fair and effective opportunity to elect representatives of their choice,” the statement said.


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