Ferguson: Stalled County Election Reform Bill Likely to Get Senate Vote in 2022

Maryland lawmakers considered but failed to embrace legislation that would have prohibited a local election practice that critics say has been used to systematically disenfranchise racial and other minorities.

The measure, House Bill 655, passed the House of Delegates along party lines after contentious debate. But it died in the Senate — without a vote and without explanation, leaving the bill’s sponsor, the NAACP, and other advocates baffled.

Next year, Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) said in a Maryland Matters interview, the bill is likely to move.

“Starting session, it wasn’t even on our radar,” he said. “It didn’t have a cross-file. There wasn’t a bill in the Senate.”

“By the time we had an opportunity to really consider moving it, it was near the end of session, 72 hours left, and it was at a point where I was concerned it would really impact a lot of other bills that had to cross the finish line,” Ferguson added.

House Bill 655 would have applied to counties where commissioners and school board members who represent districts are elected at-large.

Had the measure passed, those counties would have been required to elect district commissioners and board members through district-level balloting, rather than county-wide.

Voters in five counties choose their district commissioners in at-large elections — Calvert, Charles, Garrett, Queen Anne’s and St. Mary’s.

Proponents of such systems say they serve as a hedge against parochialism.

But critics say they enable a majority population to make it next-to-impossible for minority candidates to win elections, due to the prevalence of race-based voting.

Del. Brian M. Crosby (D-St. Mary’s), the bill’s sponsor, said that — in the wake of a grueling and unsuccessful battle this year — he hasn’t “given any thought” to whether he will reintroduce the bill next year.

But he said he still believes the use of at-large elections for district seats must end.

“The bill, on its principle and the merits of it, it’s the right policy,” he said Monday. “If you’re going to have a district, you don’t get to dilute peoples’ vote. And in a democracy, the majority does not get to silence a minority.”

Ferguson said he watched video of the House debate on Crosby’s bill — and the intensity of the opposition, which came from Republicans, convinced him not to bring the bill to a vote this session.

He also thinks the bill is going to fit better in 2022.

“We have another session before the election and it’s same session we’ll be doing redistricting,” he said. “And there will be a lot of questions about the election moving forward.”

After this year’s debate, he added, it’s possible that local leaders will make changes on their own.

“I hope that there are conversations locally about how this can be done effectively,” Ferguson said. “And if it doesn’t get figured out locally, then we figure it out here in Annapolis next session.”

By Bruce DePuyt

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