Maryland law brings long-awaited racial justice to Somerset County
by Leah Sakala, August 16, 2012
The Somerset Herald reports that a county in Maryland that had never elected an African American to county office may soon elect two, thanks to the Maryland law that ended prison-based gerrymandering. Although Somerset County Maryland contains a sizable African-American population, first slavery, then Jim Crow, and then prison-based gerrymandering prevented the African-American community from being able to elect a candidate of its choice for hundreds of years.
Activists from Somerset County played a central role in passing Maryland’s first-in-the-nation law requiring that incarcerated people be counted at their home addresses for state and local redistricting purposes. This law capped an effort to secure fair representation in Somerset County that spanned several decades. In the 1980s, in order to settle a Voting Rights Act lawsuit brought by local activists, the county agreed to create a majority minority district to allow the African-American community to elect a candidate of its choice.
But the effort was foiled because the district was drawn based on U.S. Census data that counted the people incarcerated in the Eastern Correctional Institution as residents of the county. When county officials redistricted after the 1990 Census, they drew a district that appeared to be majority African American. But because a large portion of the minority population that was counted in the new district was made up of incarcerated people who were not allowed to vote, there weren’t enough actual African-American voters in the district to elect the candidate of their choice. As Deborah Jeon from the Maryland ACLU explained,
“I wasn’t here in ’87 when the prison opened, but I was here in 1990 and it was on my radar screen that something in Somerset was amiss. It didn’t seem to be working fairly. We began to focus on the prison and the effect of the prison on the election.”
The handful of voters who lived near the prison had more than twice the representation on the county commission that their numbers warranted, and including the prison in that district made it impossible for African Americans anywhere in the county to elect a candidate of their choice. In terms advancing minority voting power, the county lived up to its official motto: “Semper Eadem” or “Always the Same.”
But in 2009, a coalition of local activists worked together with the Somerset County chapter of the NAACP, the Maryland ACLU, and the Legislative Black Caucus to document the problem and find a remedy. Their efforts resulted in a state-wide solution to the problem of prison-based gerrymandering that ensured that the African-American community of Somerset has the opportunity to be fairly represented in county affairs.
The No Representation Without Population Act of 2010 ensures that everyone has the same access to government regardless of whether or not they live next to a large prison, and the law ended the practice of giving extra representation to a state legislative district in western Maryland that was 18% incarcerated. The law also ensures that no district in the state is able to masquerade as a functional majority-minority district solely because it contains a large prison population.
With the endorsement of the U.S. Supreme Court in June, the No Representation Without Population Act is firmly established as one of the major civil rights victories of the decade. And when Somerset County holds the next County Commissioner election in 2014, Somerset residents will be able to choose a Board of Commissioners that faithfully reflects the needs and interests of the county’s actual population.