Pressure Grows On Senate to Take Up Local Election Reform

Del. Brian M. Crosby (D-St. Mary's) works from the House Chamber Annex earlier this week. Crosby is sponsor of a bill that would require county officials who represent districts be elected to office only by residents of that district. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

With a dwindling number of days before the 2021 legislative session ends, pressure is growing on Maryland’s Senate to pass “historic civil rights legislation” that would change how some counties select their commissioners and aims to ensure that votes cast by minorities in those counties are not overrun by a county-wide majority.

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 votes in those elections.

The measure would also apply to six elected county school boards in the state.

The proposal has widespread endorsement from voting rights advocates and even some celebrities. Former Baltimore Ravens star Ray Lewis threw his support behind the proposal in a recent video with St. Mary’s County NAACP President William “BJ” Hall.

Former U.S. Education Secretary and potential gubernatorial candidate John B. King Jr. has also endorsed the bill, writing on Twitter that the General Assembly “has an opportunity to stop systematic disenfranchisement of non-white voters by ending at-large voting in five MD counties.”

“At a time when some states are trying to suppress votes and disenfranchise voters in representation, we in Maryland should be leaders and doing the exact opposite,” Crosby told Maryland Matters Thursday. “People should have the ability to elect a representative who can advocate for their needs.”

The House passed the proposal more than a month ago. At the time, House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) called Crosby’s bill “historic civil rights legislation,” and said she was confident the Senate would take up the legislation.

But aside from a single committee hearing since, the bill has languished in the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee. The reform has yet to be taken up for a committee vote.

Stopped Thursday afternoon following the Senate’s morning floor session, Committee Chairman Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s) offered little information on the status of the legislation.

“I think representatives from the Senate president’s office and the speaker’s office are having a conversation,” Pinsky said, without offering further detail.

The long wait for Senate action on the bill has frustrated advocates. Hall said Thursday that a lack of Senate action on the bill would send a resoundingly negative message to minority voters in rural areas.

“Sitting on it like this is not going to sit well with our community next year,” Hall said. “We’ll definitely take note of this and you’ll hear more about that.”

Hall said he’s still hopeful the legislature will act in the few days left in the session.

Some contentious proposals have already been passed by both chambers. Lawmakers gave final approval to an ambitious package of policing reform bills Wednesday.

Willie Flowers, the president of the Maryland State Conference NAACP, told Maryland Matters that the at-large system for electing commissioners to represent districts in those counties is “antiquated,” and an example of how old laws live on across the state. He said it has led to voter disenfranchisement in St. Mary’s County, and that the bill’s failure would be “unfortunate” for those rural voters.

Experts likewise have lambasted the at-large district system: Yurij Rudensky, redistricting counsel in the Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program, previously told Maryland Matters that “While [it’s] not necessarily true in every case, there is absolutely a long and pretty ugly discriminatory history of using at-large systems to cancel out the possibility that different racial groups are able to elect candidates that represent their interests.”

He said the use of at-large districts “was a response to the end of slavery and the 15th Amendment and the expansion of the right to vote to Black folks.”

If the Maryland legislature was elected in such a manner, Rudensky said, it’s possible that Democrats would control every seat.

“The point is that 50% plus one [voter] of the population can control 100% of the seats. And that is a fundamentally flawed representation system that leads to absurd results.”

The measure has met significant pushback from local officials and Republicans, who say the bill is infringing on counties’ right to self government. And Democrat Reuben Collins, 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.”

House deliberation on the bill was heated and drawn out, with Republicans attempting numerous amendments and delaying debate on the bill. Del. Matt Morgan (R-St. Mary’s) said his county would likely switch to at-large county commissioners if the proposal passed.

In floor debates, Morgan and other Republicans repeatedly emphasized opposition from county officials.

James R. Guy (R), president of the St. Mary’s County Board of Commissioners, told lawmakers in a February meeting that the proposal would “unilaterally undermine the will of the people” in his county.

And At-Large Queen Anne’s County Commissioner James Moran (R) said at the same meeting that he supported a similar reform in his own county, but that voters rejected it in 2016.

“One fix doesn’t work across the entire state,” Moran warned in February.

With few days left before the legislature adjourns at midnight Monday April 12, Crosby vowed to continue pushing for the bill’s passage.

“People continue to tell me, ‘you’re going to go down swinging.’” Crosby said. “Well, I’m willing to keep swinging.”

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Danielle E. Gaines and Josh Kurtz contributed to this report.