Maryland papers highlight how rural Somerset County will benefit from prison count bill
by Elena Lavarreda, May 7, 2010
Last week, both The Capital and the Baltimore Sun published excellent pieces on a new Maryland law. The first-in-nation law will improve fairness and accuracy of the Census data used for redistricting purposes.
Both pieces (one article, one editorial), point out an important part of what this bill seeks to rectify—the fact that Somerset County, which is 42% African-American, has yet to elect an African-American County Commissioner in its history.
Previous to a 1986 lawsuit that intended to correct a vote dilution problem in Somerset County, the county had “at-large” voting, meaning that there were no districts. Despite having a large population of African-Americans, Somerset County was unable to elect a Black commissioner, because the voting power of the African-American community was essentially diluted by the majority-white voters.
The lawsuit was settled, and Somerset County was divided into districts, yet still not one African-American commissioner was elected. Why? Because shortly after the lawsuit was settled, a new prison opened in what was intended to be the majority African-American district, splitting the actual African-American population into two districts. Again African-Americans were unable to draw an effective majority-African American district. The passing of this bill will finally make it possible for Somerset County to elect its first African-American commissioner.
While some legislators with prisons in their districts opposed the bill, fearful of the shifts it might cause, some legislators with prisons in their districts supported it.
The Capital reports:
[Joseline] Pena-Melnyk and other District 21 state representatives – Del. Ben Barnes, Del. Barbara Frush and Sen. Jim Rosapepe, all Democrats who voted for the bill, too – conceivably could lose ground because their district includes Jessup [Correctional Facility] as well.
Pena-Melnyk believes the importance of equity overrides any parochial interest.:
“It doesn’t matter,” she said. “To me, it is just a fair way to count.”