Seven men sit across the dais — six white and one Black. They’ve been elected to wield government power on behalf of Baltimore County’s 854,000 residents, more than half of whom are women and nearly half Black, brown, Indigenous and other people of color.

How could this all-male, overwhelmingly white group truly represent Baltimore County’s rich diversity?

This question is personal for me as a Black woman and democracy activist living in the county whose voice isn’t represented by an election map purposefully configured to ensure a white hold on the County Council, despite numerous opportunities to change that. Most recently, council members ignored their own appointed committee’s recommendation that the council be expanded to promote fairer representation, despite many county residents speaking out in favor of this expansion.

Now, residents are seeking to take power into their own hands, reaching out to residents to sign onto the Vote4More coalition petition effort to let Baltimore County voters decide the council’s makeup for themselves.

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How did we get here? Following the 2020 Census, the county was proposing a 2021 redistricting plan that would suppress votes by packing Black voters into a single council district and keep the other six districts majority white. Black Baltimore County residents and civil rights groups worked together to raise concerns about the plan’s illegality. We urged the council to support an alternative plan that would offer all residents equal voice in county government.

Despite overwhelming community outcry, the council rejected our views, pushing through their plan that violated the federal Voting Rights Act. This forced Black voters to sue, and a federal judge invalidated the county’s 2021 redistricting plan as racially discriminatory. The court ruled a new plan was necessary to enhance fairness by providing greater election opportunities for Black voters and candidates.

Still, incumbent county officials sought to protect their seats, doing the bare minimum to increase the plan’s fairness. They adopted a plan that still kept six out of seven council districts majority white in voting age population. As a result, every Black candidate and every female candidate, running in these majority white districts in 2022 lost, with only the single incumbent Black male council member running in a majority Black district winning election. This means no women are on the current council. This does not represent me or the Baltimore County community of today.

In light of this outrageous result, county officials, led by County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., formed a committee to study possible changes to the council structure to offer greater opportunities for fuller and more diverse representation. The committee conducted an independent study and heard testimony from residents, almost all of whom supported an initiative to expand the council from seven to 11 members.

Ultimately, the committee proposed a compromise expansion to nine members initially, with further expansion tied to population growth. The committee recommended to the council that this proposal be put to a vote on this November’s ballot. Shamefully, council incumbents disregarded the recommendation, failing thus far to make any move to get the measure on the ballot.

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This leaves Baltimore County residents who care about representative democracy no choice but to take matters into our own hands. Fortunately for us, a petition effort is on the brink of success, with already nearly enough signatures to place a measure on the ballot in November to expand the County Council’s size from seven to 11.

This makes obvious sense: By creating a larger number of smaller districts, the redistricting process creates more districts where voters have a realistic opportunity to elect representatives of their choice. In fact, findings from a consultant to the ACLU showed that a council system with 11 members in Baltimore County could include five districts with people of color majorities.

Change is within our reach. Signing the Vote4More petition will help free county residents from the inequitable hold on power the current council maintains.

Veronica Dunlap is deputy executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland.

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