Skip to main content
Commentary Election 2022 Government & Politics

Tom Perez: Baltimore County Gets a Do-over to Ensure a Fair Map. Councilmembers Should Take It

The Baltimore County Courthouse in Towson. Photo by James G. Howes via Wikipedia.

By Tom Perez

The writer, a former Assistant Attorney for Civil Rights at the Department of Justice, and U.S. and Maryland Labor secretary, is a 2022 Democratic candidate for governor.

U.S. District Court Judge Lydia Griggsby made the right call this week in quickly striking down a map proposed by the Baltimore County Council, which was a textbook violation of the Voting Rights Act.

With this ruling, the County Council now has a golden opportunity — in addition to a legal obligation — to create a fair map that allows for more equitable representation and greater civic participation. And they have an opportunity to craft a map that reflects today’s rich diversity of Maryland’s third largest jurisdiction.

Ten years ago, during the last round of federal, state and local redistricting, I was in the voting rights trenches after President Obama appointed me to lead the Civil Rights Division at the U.S. Department of Justice. The division had the solemn duty of enforcing the Voting Rights Act. We took on a number of high-profile voting rights cases, challenging unfair maps in Texas, Mississippi and elsewhere. We also had a steady diet of local government redistricting cases like what’s happening in Baltimore County.

Tom Perez headshot

Tom Perez. Campaign photo.

There were typically two types of voting rights cases involving local governments: the first involved jurisdictions that created at-large seats, so a candidate had to run jurisdiction wide — heavily diluting the power of minority voters. The second involved jurisdictions that created single member districts which packed minority communities into a single district — even when there were sufficient members of that community in geographically compact areas that would justify the creation of additional districts.

The Baltimore County case is a clear example of that kind of packing and a clear violation of the Voting Rights Act.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965, was an ambitious effort to undo decades of systemic discrimination in voting. It aimed to ensure every person had access to the ballot, and to provide minority voters with an equal opportunity to elect representatives that understood their needs and concerns — representatives that reflected the communities they served. Baltimore County is the perfect example of that kind of community.

In recent years, Baltimore County has changed dramatically. The population has grown to nearly 850,000 people, and it has become increasingly diverse. Today, approximately a third of Baltimore County’s residents are African American, and nearly half are non-white minorities.

Despite this exciting increase in diversity — and in spite of concerns from dedicated advocates across the county — the County Council enacted a map that ensured only one out of seven districts appropriately empowered Black residents to elect the candidate of their choice.

At the same, the council enacted a proposal long championed by County Executive Johnny Olszewski to level the playing field for candidates by creating the county’s first public financing system. This is a big deal, and I applaud this effort. But this isn’t an “either-or” scenario. We have to do both.

Now that the court has struck down this map, the council has a chance for a do-over. Creating a second Black majority district in the western part of the county is both a legal and moral imperative.

In addition, the council should take this opportunity to draw a coalition district further east, where the population has also grown increasingly diverse, with white, Black, and Latino voters. Over the course of the next decade, this diversity will increase. A person running successfully in this district will have to build a coalition across the entire community.

I know the importance of this firsthand. When I first ran for the Montgomery County Council, my district was majority-minority, but there was no single racial or ethnic group that represented the majority of my district. Because of that, we built a multiracial, multiethnic coalition of white and non-white voters. And that was how we won and, ultimately, how we got things done in government.

Like in Montgomery County, creating a coalition district in the eastern part of Baltimore County would not only accurately reflect the county’s changing demographics — it would help ensure a County Council better prepared to meet the diverse needs of its diverse residents.

Having served at a local level, I have great respect for the challenges that the members of the County Council face on a day-to-day basis. At the same time, civil rights remains the unfinished business of America, and voting is the most fundamental of rights. I am hopeful that the council will take full advantage of this do-over opportunity to draw a map that will empower everyone.


Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our website. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

If you have any questions, please email editor Danielle Gaines at [email protected]

To republish, copy the following text and paste it into your HTML editor.


Creative Commons License AttributionCreative Commons Attribution
Tom Perez: Baltimore County Gets a Do-over to Ensure a Fair Map. Councilmembers Should Take It