Reuben Collins: County Election Bill Could Dilute the Power of Minority Voters

House Bill 655, which deals with voting districts in county elections, is not a panacea for Charles County. The bill may have the unintended consequence of diluting the power of the community’s minority vote.

In the 1990s, I served as chief counsel for the Charles County NAACP. Voter suppression and maximizing the Black community’s voting power became a priority for the chapter. Those efforts intensified after the 1998 and 2002 countywide elections.

In both instances, the African American candidate representing District 3 (Waldorf) accumulated a clear plurality of votes within his residency district over the eventual election victor. The branch worked with the ACLU to review the impact of the “at-large” voting system in place to elect county commissioners, the highest-level local officials in Charles County’s government.

Two key factors are important to include here.

In 1988, the county passed a legislative measure that established our present (“residency”) voting district requirement. The county was a purely “commissioner form of government,” which required the Maryland state legislature to approve voting process changes. In 2002, through referendum, the county approved changing its form of government to Code Home Rule, which enables local officials to legislate on local matters and places a limit on the state’s ability to legislate for us.

Notwithstanding the will of the people of Charles County in deciding it wanted more authority over its affairs by becoming Code Home Rule, HB 655 seeks to reduce our status to that of the other HB 655 affected counties, only one other of which has passed home rule. This bill carelessly infringes on the authority of Charles County as a Code Home Rule jurisdiction to decide its own policies of local import.

The residency requirement was essentially a compromise in 1988 to appease the concerns of leadership to maintain a comfort level that the overall (white majority) county voting base would be secured. The at-large system in place nevertheless nullified the will of the citizens in District 3 to be represented by someone that reflected the interests of the community in 1998 and 2002.

Charles County Board of County Commissioners President Reuben B. Collins II (D).

The county worked with the ACLU to ascertain whether those results could be challenged under the Voting Rights Act. The conclusion was because the county did not have clearly “contiguous” areas that could be viewed as “minority,” a Voting Rights Act challenge would probably be unsuccessful.

Demographic changes made Charles County a majority minority population that will likely, as a result of the 2020 census, be designated as the wealthiest Black majority jurisdiction in the nation, making the issue of minority political power moot within subsequent years. From 2006 to the present, the county’s leadership reflects these demographic changes, including my election as the first African American to serve as the county’s leading government official.

HB 655 would impact five of Maryland’s 24 counties. The law does not apply in counties with charter form of government, nor in counties that already vote entirely at-large, which leaves Charles in addition to St. Mary’s, Calvert, Queen Anne’s, and Garrett counties.

Charles and Queen Anne’s are the only code home rule counties in the bill. Charles is the only majority-minority county covered by the legislation, the only county with more registered Democrats than Republicans, and the only county that currently boasts a diverse Board of County Commissioners, with two women and three people of color serving on its five-member board.

For all of its successes in the area of diversity and inclusion, HB 655 stands to dilute the power of the community’s Black vote. This is, undoubtedly, not the intention of the bill sponsors, however it is a potential consequence of the legislation. Our population center, Waldorf, is home to nearly half of the county’s residents, and people of color comprise more than half of that population.

Today, those individuals have a voice in determining the outcome of all five commissioner positions. Should HB 655 pass, they will be reduced to voting for their district commissioner and commission president only.

Charles County has come a long way since when the NAACP advocated for a single district commissioner to diversity the board, and we are now well beyond that in terms of representation. While HB 655 may look like short-term progress for counties lacking diverse representation on their boards, in Charles County it will erode the voices of people of color after long and hard-fought advancements and is contrary to our status as code home rule.

— REUBEN B. COLLINS II

The writer, a Democrat, is president of the Charles County Board of Commissioners.

Editor’s note: This piece has been updated to reflect that Queen Anne’s County is also a charter home rule county.