Last week, the Maryland Voting Rights Act (MDVRA) was publicly filed in the Maryland legislature. This landmark legislation, SB0878, builds on the federal Voting Rights Act (VRA), which is known as the “crown jewel” of the civil rights movement yet has been repeatedly chipped away at by the Supreme Court.
Many of Maryland’s counties and municipalities have a troubling history of racial discrimination in voting, including literacy tests, property requirements and policies that use discrimination in the criminal legal system to keep voters from the ballot box. Sadly, some of the practices that target voters of color – especially Black Americans – persist to this day. In fact, Baltimore County recently faced litigation over a gerrymandered map that was racially discriminatory. In addition, in Federalsburg, Black residents and community groups are advocating to change the town’s racially discriminatory at-large election system, which has resulted in no Black candidate ever winning election to the town council, despite a significant and growing Black population.
Upon passing and enacting the MDVRA, Maryland would join a growing number of states that have adopted state-level Voting Rights Acts (state VRAs) to protect voters of color after the Supreme Court has undercut the federal VRA and even as the push for federal voting rights legislation to restore its full power continues.
The Maryland Voting Rights Act would:
- Prevent voting discrimination before it occurs by requiring counties and other jurisdictions with a demonstrated history of discrimination to get pre-approval of certain voting changes from the Attorney General or a court;
- Expand protections for voters who don’t speak English as their primary language;
- Protect voters against intimidation and deceptive practices;
- Make it easier for voters experiencing discrimination to fight back in court; and
- Add critical research and enforcement tools, such as a statewide database of demographics and voting rules.
Campaign Legal Center, ACLU of Maryland, Common Cause Maryland, and NAACP Legal Defense Fund have all urged passage of the bill this year:
“The right to vote is a basic American freedom that every citizen should have equal access to. Sadly, Black Marylanders and other voters of color have faced significant barriers to the ballot box that persist to this day,” said Paul Smith, Senior Vice President of Campaign Legal Center. “To make matters worse, the Supreme Court has repeatedly chipped away at the federal Voting Rights Act, opening the door for states to pass laws that exclude voters of color from our democracy. The Maryland Voting Rights Act will be an important tool to protect voters of color from discrimination and we applaud this effort to strengthen our democracy.”
“Voting rights are fundamental. Before all else, we must safeguard access to the ballot box. The Maryland Voting Rights Act is a crucial step toward creating a more reflective and representative democracy that works for all Marylanders,” said Morgan Drayton, policy and engagement manager at Common Cause Maryland. “This legislation will bolster our state’s voter protections and provide much-needed legal recourse for voters whose rights are denied or abridged, and it’s about time that we make this happen.”
“LDF congratulates lawmakers in Maryland for this act of leadership and for taking this important step toward establishing a vibrant multiracial democracy in their state,” said Legal Defense Fund President and Director-Counsel Janai S. Nelson. “We urge lawmakers in Maryland to come together and seize this opportunity to show the rest of the nation that it is in our collective power to lay the foundations of a better future.”
“The right to vote is the pillar of our democracy. Without strong safeguards for this right, discrimination and disenfranchisement would be left unrestrained at every level of politics,” said Deborah Jeon, Legal Director at ACLU of Maryland. “And given the U.S. Supreme Court’s increasingly worrisome record on civil rights, there’s reason to fear further retrenchment in federal protection for equal ballot access. That’s why we must adopt the Maryland Voting Rights Act so that all Maryland voters are valued and protected no matter what losses future federal court rulings bring.”