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New Voting System Ordered to Help Blacks

A FEDERAL judge has ordered a rural county in Maryland to let voters cast up to five ballots each to give blacks a better shot at a seat on the five-member county commission.

US District Judge Joseph Young ordered the setup for Maryland's Worcester County on Tuesday after lawyers could not agree on a new system.

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Under the new setup, all five commissioners will still be elected from the county as a whole rather than from individual districts.

But Worcester County voters will get five votes to use any way they want, spreading them among candidates or giving them all to one. The idea is to allow black votes to accumulate for black candidates.

Commissioners said they will appeal.

So-called cumulative voting was one of the controversial ideas supported by Lani Guinier that led President Clinton to withdraw her nomination to head the Justice Department's civil rights division last June.

Such systems have been adopted elsewhere in the United States.

IN 1988, a federal judge ordered Chilton County, Ala., to increase black voter participation by having each voter cast seven ballots for the county commission and school board. The plan worked; there is one black member among the seven in each governing body.

Judge Young's order came after the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People filed a lawsuit claiming Worcester County's at-large voting setup was racially biased.

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Young ruled in January that the system violates the Voting Rights Act of 1965 because it dilutes the black vote. Blacks make up 21 percent of the county's 35,000 residents, but no black has ever been elected to the commission.

The judge said cumulative voting is ``a less drastic remedy'' than creating districts.

But Ben Griffith, the lawyer who represented the sparsely populated county along Maryland's Atlantic Coast, said the system could encourage race-based voting on the part of both blacks and whites. ``I think it will actually aggravate any racial problems,'' he said.

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