County Election Reforms Passed by House Hailed As ‘Historic Civil Rights Legislation’ by Speaker

The Maryland State House. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

A hotly contested measure to change how some Maryland counties select their commissioners passed out of the House of Delegates on Wednesday after a final round of objections from Republicans.

House Bill 655, sponsored by Del. Brian M. Crosby (D-St. Mary’s) would require that, if a candidate for county commissioner is running to represent a specific district in Calvert, Charles, Garrett, Queen Anne’s or St. Mary’s counties, that commissioner’s election must be decided only by voters within that district.

District-level commissioner candidates are currently elected by a county-wide vote in those five counties. Crosby, along with other Democratic lawmakers and voting rights advocates, has said that the current system disenfranchises voters of color by diluting their local votes. On the House floor Wednesday, Crosby likened the counties’ current system to voters in Virginia choosing Maryland’s next governor.

In addition to affecting county commissioner races, the bill was amended last week by Del. Jheanelle K. Wilkins (D-Montgomery) to include similar provisions for school board races – including in Montgomery County. Before delegates voted on the legislation, Wilkins emphasized that the proposal is “historic and important” for the state.

“We are applying a basic principle universally,” Wilkins said.

Crosby’s bill was approved in a 95-39 vote Wednesday, setting the stage for further debate in the Senate. The bill has been controversial among some local officials and Republicans, who charge that the state is infringing on counties’ ability to self-govern.

“Control should be at the local level, not here at the chambers,” Del. Jefferson Ghrist (R-Upper Shore) said.

Reuben Collins, the Democratic president of the Charles County Commissioners, wrote in Maryland Matters that the proposal would actually dilute Black voters’ power in his county.

“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,” Collins wrote. “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.”

But on Facebook, Commissioner Gilbert Bowling stressed that Collins represented “an opinion of one commissioner of 5.”

“Very unfortunate that the bigger picture of equality for all and a democratic way to elect commissioners is being taken in this direction,” Bowling wrote.

Del. Matthew Morgan (R-St. Mary’s), one of the bill’s most outspoken opponents, slammed the proposal as “hypocritical” because the House uses multi-member districts. Like Collins, Morgan said the bill would actually reduce the average voter’s power.

And Del. Mark N. Fisher (R-Calvert) renewed his charge that Republican voters in Montgomery County are suppressed. Fisher previously introduced an amendment that would’ve required political mapmakers in Montgomery County to draw a commissioner district designed to elect a Republican in 2022.

Fisher’s amendment, along with several other attempted Republican amendments, were rejected after previous debates. Among those rejected amendments was an initial attempt by Morgan to get school board races included in the legislation, and a proposal by Del. Wendell R. Beitzel (R-Garrett and Allegany), a former Garrett County commissioner, to remove his home county from the proposal.

Morgan said Wednesday that he approached Crosby about allowing county voters a referendum on whether to switch to district-only voting, but that proposal was “shot down.” At-Large Queen Anne’s County Commissioner James Moran (R) previously told lawmakers that Queen Anne’s voters rejected a similar proposal in 2016.

House Majority Leader Eric G. Luedtke (D-Montgomery) pushed back on Republican claims that the bill would infringe on self-governance. He said the proposal is about ensuring fair democracy, which has a “clear statewide interest.”

“We misjudge local courtesy when we believe that local courtesy is absolute,” Luedtke said, “That any jurisdiction can do whatever they want, whenever they want.”

Democratic proponents of the bill include Delegates C.T. Wilson and Edith Patterson – both of whom are from Charles County. Responding to Republican objections, Wilson said the bill could lead to a Republican commissioner being elected to the Charles County Commission.

“This really is not about anything but the people’s right to choose,” Wilson said.

Patterson, a former Charles County commissioner, said there is currently a “lack of equitable representation” in parts of Southern Maryland. She added that the bill will give people of varying backgrounds and ideologies a chance at being elected.

“Even though there are persons offering diverse ideas and ideologies, they were not elected,” she said. “House Bill 655 will give them that opportunity.”

Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) wrote on Twitter later that she was proud to vote in favor of the bill.

“Maryland voters of every color have a right to choose who represents them at the county level,” Jones tweeted. “For too long across this country, undemocratic local laws have denied voters of color their full enfranchisement. I am confident the Senate will take action on this historic civil rights legislation.”

Danielle E. Gaines contributed to this report. 

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