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Government & Politics

Judge Accepts Redrawn Baltimore County Council Map With One Majority Black District

The Baltimore County Council submitted a map to a federal judge late Tuesday evening that included only one majority Black Council District. Screenshot from court filings.

A judge has accepted a remedial Baltimore County Council map with one majority Black council district.

U.S. District Court Judge Lydia Kay Griggsby said at a status conference Thursday afternoon that the new map drawn by the Baltimore County Council is better than the one she struck down in February because it gives Black voters a chance to elect their candidate of choice.

Roughly 30% of Baltimore County residents are Black, according to U.S. Census data, and nearly half are people of color, reflecting growing diversity in the county. Five of seven districts in the plan that the county council approved in December were majority white and another, District 1, had a 49.41% white plurality in its voting age population.

The council’s redrawn proposal includes a District 4 with a smaller Black majority, 61.12% of the district’s voting age population, and includes a white plurality rather than a majority in District 2, with 45.80% of the district’s voting age population being white.

District 2 also has a higher percentage of Black residents, moving from 29.58% of the district’s voting age population in the council’s December map to 41.22% in the new map.

Griggsby had said at a marathon evidentiary hearing Monday that whether the redrawn District 2 gives Black voters an adequate chance to elect a candidate of their choice would be key to her decision.

In December, the Baltimore County NAACP, Common Cause Maryland, the League of Women Voters of Baltimore County, and several Black voters in the county filed a federal lawsuit against the council’s original redistricting plan, charging that it violated the Voting Rights Act.

In February, Griggsby ordered the county council to redraw their redistricting plan, saying it needed either “two reasonably compact majority-Black Districts” or another district in which Black voters “otherwise have an opportunity to elect a representative of their choice.”

Andy Freeman, an attorney with the law firm Brown Goldstein and Levy who is representing the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said the plaintiffs believe the new map still violates the Voting Rights Act and doesn’t give Black voters in the county an adequate chance to elect their candidate of choice.

Baltimore County’s only current majority-Black council district, District 4, was drawn in 2001 after a push from civil rights activists. Residents of that district have elected a Black council member in every election since it was created, while majority white districts have elected white council members. Baltimore County Council Chair Julian E. Jones Jr. (D) is the only Black council member.

Matt A. Barreto, a University of California, Los Angeles professor who testified for the plaintiffs, pointed to a history of racially polarized voting in the jurisdiction in his arguments against the remedial map at the Monday hearing. He said that Black voters vote cohesively in the jurisdiction, with clear candidates of choice, particularly in western Baltimore County.

Barreto also said he found that white voters often voted as a bloc in the new District 2 against Black voters’ candidate of choice in various statewide elections, including against Democratic nominee Ben Jealous in the 2018 gubernatorial election.

“All we were asking for is a level playing field, and I am disappointed that the court did not level the playing field,” Anthony Fugett, one of the plaintiffs, said in a statement. “The County Council continues to pack District 4 with over 64% Black voters, which leaves white voters in the majority in District 2. That means white voters in District 2 will continue to have veto power over the desires of Black voters, despite the west side of Baltimore County being majority Black. That speaks volumes to me, and I hope that speaks volumes to all of my neighbors.”

Dana Vickers Shelley, who is executive director of the ACLU of Maryland and also a plaintiff in the lawsuit, called the decision “devastating news for the growing Black community in Baltimore County.”

At the Monday hearing, Ava E. Lias-Booker, an attorney with the law firm McGuire Woods who is representing the county, argued that the new district was a “crossover district” where some white voters vote for the candidate preferred by Black voters. She also said that creating two majority Black districts with lesser majorities wouldn’t ensure a Black county council member and that the “blind pursuit” of a second majority Black district would dilute Black voters’ power in District 4.

Jones said Monday that, in their remedial map, the county wanted to draw District 4 with at least a 60% Black majority to ensure the election of a Black council member. He said the county didn’t retain an expert to analyze how the redrawn county council map would perform, and argued that county council members themselves were “experts” in the county.

“On behalf of my Council colleagues, we are very satisfied the Court recognized the commitment to diversity and hard work of the Council in approving our latest Redistricting Plan,” Jones said in a statement. “As we have seen all over the country recently, redistricting is an extremely difficult process, and my colleagues and I worked together in crafting a Map that was acceptable to the Court, while also staying true to the will of our communities.”

In a statement, Councilmember David Marks (R) said the map is “more bipartisan, compact and community-friendly” than Maryland’s new congressional and legislative maps. Those maps are subject to ongoing legal challenges of their own.

Jones said the new council district map “offers Black and other minority candidates a more level playing field and provides better opportunities to get elected than ever before in this County’s history.”

Freeman said Thursday that the plaintiffs were reviewing their options.