The NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the nation’s pre-eminent civil rights law firm, on November 17, 2017 sent a letter to Columbus City Council, challenging the at-large voting scheme being used here (Ltr. to Columbus City Council 11.17.17 NAACP Columbus FAQ) and offering to consult to form a system that would be facially compliant with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. (Zach Klein responded (Klein Response Letter) and the LDF replied that Klein’s letter raises even more questions about whether the nearly 4 decades of exclusive initial appointments of African Americans to council (none initially elected) represented “unconstitutional racial stereotyping” pursuant to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Shaw v. Reno. (LDF Reply to Klein)
At-large voting systems — the type of citywide elections used currently to elect Columbus City Council — are widely viewed as a racially discriminatory method of election, which is one more reason for change. Section 2 of the Voting Right Act of 1965 created prohibitions against “unusually large electoral districts” (which courts have found citywide districts to be),when majority-minority districts can be created and where the votes of race, color, or language minority groups are subsumed by votes from the majority population in racially polarized voting. Cities throughout the nation responded over ensuing decades, eliminating the at-large systems that had become a fad during the early 1900s. Detroit, Austin and Seattle are the most recent cities to abandon this method of election. Prior to abandoning its at-large city council elections, the Austin business community had adopted what was referred to as the Gentlemen’s Agreement, as a way to maintain the centralized power and control of the Anglo business community and work around the inherent racial biases in the at-large system. Concerns about the continuance of this racially discriminatory system here in Columbus have been raised within the Franklin County Democratic Party (Beatty 2-14-17 At-Large Council District Letter) in an effort to educate the public and the party about this issue.
The U.S. Department of Justice says that claims against “at-large” electoral districts constitute the majority of its litigation under Section 2. While claims for racially discriminatory electoral systems are often thought of in connection with southern racism, the DoJ continues to litigate cases in the north — in 2003 it sued the City of Chelsea, MA, and in 2008 and 2009 settled lawsuits it had filed against the City of Euclid, Ohio, and the Euclid City School District for their unlawful at-large systems. In January 2017, the Department of Justice sued Eastpointe, MI on the basis of its at-large system.
As noted in local media, The NAACP Legal Defense Fund issued a brief to Columbus following the defeat of the August 2016 defeat of Issue 1 which sought to provide district representation in Columbus (NAACP Columbus FAQ). The LDF has litigated cases across the country to roll back this discriminatory form of election.
Columbus City Council is now considering to pass legislation to expand the all at-large 7 member council, to 9 members nominated by district and elected at-large. Such a system would continue to raise concerns about whether the voting rights of Columbus’s African American citizens are being violated.
Only a judge, after hearing facts, can determine whether an individual at-large system meets the tests of being unlawfully discriminatory; however, Everyday People for Positive Change believes it is long past time for Columbus to shed all the vestiges of this racially discriminatory method of electing members to Columbus City Council. We can, and should, join the rest of the country’s big cities in adopting a more traditional, fair and nondiscriminatory method of elections by district — and stop making excuses about why we don’t. What is called “the Columbus Way” seems to be suppressing minority voters with a smile, instead of a stick — but it is unnecessary and repugnant.