The majority of Columbus, Ohio’s, city council members are African Americans. But the city’s method for electing city council members is racially discriminatory, or at least this is what Jonathan Beard, a developer in Columbus’s poorest neighborhoods, is trying to prove. And the nation’s oldest and most respected civil rights organization thinks that he may have a point.
On November 17, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. [LDF] wrote a letter to Columbus’s seven city council members, which includes four African Americans, that reads:
At the request of EDP [Everyday People for Positive Change, an organization that Beard helps lead], LDF is conducting a review of Columbus’ at-large electoral method for members of its city council. We have substantial concerns that this electoral method may violate Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and other federal and state laws, by denying voters of color in Columbus of the equal opportunity to elect their preferred candidates to this important local body.
The electoral method in question is called at-large voting, in which people across the entire city vote for each city council member, as opposed to council members representing and getting elected by voters within a specific district, which is how most cities run. It’s a method with a troublesome history: In Southern states, at-large voting was employed to ensure that African Americans, who usually were in the minority, could not elect their peers. Northern cities also adopted this method to ensure control over city offices when African Americans began migrating there from the South. In a city where black voters are in the minority, it’s difficult for them to overcome the votes of the majority to elect a candidate of their liking, especially if white voters vote in a bloc.
The at-large voting method is not discriminatory on its face, explained Leah Aden, senior counsel for NAACP LDF. Other factors, such as racial polarization, must be considered that show that racial minorities can’t elect their chosen candidate. The case that Beard brought to LDF led Aden to believe there was enough smoke there to at least investigate.
“What they made clear was that they wanted to be able to elect someone who represents them and the needs of their community, particularly the black community that is dealing with issues of housing, policing, economic development, and a host of issues that they don’t feel represented on currently,” said Aden.
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