While leftists like Rep. Stacey Abrams, D-Ga., and Vanita Gupta make false claims about nonexistent “voter suppression” over state efforts to fix vulnerabilities in state election laws, the Public Interest Legal Foundation has filed a lawsuit over a real voter suppression in Maryland.
The lawsuit, filed on March 16 on behalf of several parents and their children in Howard County, Maryland, outlines voting procedures for the school board that, as the Public Interest Legal Foundation says, resemble the plot of the 1999 Reese Witherspoon movie, “Election,” about a corrupt student government election. The lawsuit claims that the Howard County Board of Education is violating Maryland election law as well as the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment and the free exercise clause of the First Amendment.
The Howard County Board of Education has eight members, all of whom must be residents of the county. Registered adult voters—regardless of whether they have children or whether their children attend public, private, or religious schools—elect seven of those members. Two members are in at-large seats, and every registered voter in the county can vote for them. Five members are elected by registered voters who reside in the members’ specific districts corresponding to the county’s council districts.
But the eighth member of the school board is not an adult. Instead, that member is a junior or senior public school student elected by 6th through 11th grade students also attending the public schools in Howard County through an election process controlled by the school board and school administrators.
Keep in mind that the Howard County School Board—including this student member—runs 77 public schools with almost 60,000 students, and oversees nearly one billion dollars in taxpayer funds through its annual operating and capital budget. Yet, the taxpayers and the overwhelming majority of registered voters of Howard County have no say whatsoever in the election of the eighth voting member of this important board.
They also have no say in who is nominated to run as the student member, in contrast to the nomination of candidates for the other (adult) positions on the school board.
Instead, the nomination and election of the student member, as the lawsuit outlines, is under a “process approved by [the School] Board and overseen and controlled by the Superintendent and various administrators and other full-time public employees.”
In other words, bureaucrats who work for the school board control who can be nominated to be the student member and how they can run their campaigns, a clear and irreconcilable conflict of interest.
In fact, this gives unions—like the Howard County Education Association, which represents these same bureaucrats—effective control over the nomination of this voting member of the board—the same board with which the union negotiates contracts that affect every taxpayer in the county.
The superintendent of Howard County even retains ultimate power (and thus veto authority) to control the guidelines and content of whatever campaign materials these student candidates produce for distribution to their fellow students.
The Public Interest Legal Foundation alleges that this violates both Maryland law and the U.S. Constitution. Most fundamentally, the state constitution of Maryland states that you are not eligible to vote unless you are a citizen and 18 years old. Yet, the state is allowing minors, as well as the numerous noncitizens—both legal and illegal—in Howard County’s public schools to vote for this critical position.
Moreover, the county is violating the “one person, one vote” standard of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment as well as discriminating on the basis of religion in violation of the First Amendment, the Public Interest Legal Foundation alleges.
While adult residents can run for the school board and can vote for candidates regardless of their religious affiliation, students who attend religious schools cannot be candidates for the student member slot, nor can they vote for that position. Yet they are affected by the school board’s decisions on issues such as their transportation, which occurs on “school buses operated by the Board.”
Furthermore, adult registered voters are able to vote for three positions on the school board: the two at-large seats and the seat representing the district where they live. However, if you are 18 but still a public student, you are able to vote for four positions on the school board. As the Public Interest Legal Foundation’s lawsuit carefully explains, the 14th Amendment “ensures equal representation to all residents who reside within a geographical electoral jurisdiction” and similarly situated adults have to have “equal representation in legislative bodies, including school boards.”
Similarly, while the rules governing the election of the seven adult members of the school board comply with state law, the rules governing the student member election do not. Again, the Public Interest Legal Foundation contends, the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment does not allow for “[t]wo entirely different standards for electing individuals to the same government body.”
The 14th Amendment as interpreted by the courts also bars malapportioned districts. In other words, you can’t have political districts that vary greatly in population. Yet, as the Public Interest Legal Foundation points out, according to Census data, the two adult members elected at-large represent 300,000 residents of the county. The student member elected at-large represents only 60,000 students. This is a blatant violation of the “one-person, one vote” standard.
The result of this inequity can be seen in the stalemate that has occurred in Howard County over the reopening of schools in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Resolutions to reopen the schools have failed because of a stalemate – 4-to-4 votes among the adult school board members with the student member (who obviously doesn’t have to pay the property taxes that fund the schools) casting the deciding vote to keep the schools closed.
This lawsuit, which has gotten almost no attention by the media or so-called civil rights organizations, is a classic example of discrimination, malapportionment, vote dilution, and fundamental violations of the legal and constitutional principles that apply to elections and the voting process. Hopefully, Howard County will see the error of its ways and voluntarily agree to change its unlawful procedures.
If, instead, it tries to fight this lawsuit, the voters of the county should take that into account the next time they go to the polls.
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