(December 11, 2017) Everyday People for Positive Change, a ballot issue committee of Columbus citizens seeking reform of city council’s electoral system, has reviewed and herein responds to council president Zach Klein’s December 5th letter to Leah Aden, Senior Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
We are disappointed, but not surprised, by the superficial manner in which the council president responded to the serious concerns raised by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (“LDF”), our nation’s pre-eminent civil rights law firm, about the racially discriminatory effect of at-large elections, in the LDF’s letter of November 17, 2017. In its letter, the LDF (Ms. Aden) introduced troubling evidence in highlighting its concerns that Columbus’s council elections might be unlawfully discriminatory under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. We understand that it takes a finding of fact in a court of law to establish that an electoral system or method is unlawful under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and we take the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s concern to be evidence of potential problems under the law.
While we are disappointed by Klein’s dismissal of those concerns, in a phone conference with the LDF on Friday, the firm assured us that denial by politicians is the typical response they have seen across the country, when confronted by experts with suspicions of unlawfulness.
Klein’s position harkens to a paternalistic racial past in America, in asserting that council’s curated “diversity” is of equal or better substance than the right of minority communities to elect representatives of their own choosing – which right is now a bedrock American election principle confirmed by the Voting Rights Act. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 ended grandfather clauses, poll taxes and literacy tests. It further established that at-large elections where there is “vote dilution” – when minority votes are submerged and overwhelmed by the larger pool of majority votes – are unlawful election systems. 1982 Amendments to the Voting Rights Act, which made Section 2 a permanent provision of the nation’s law – deemed to be a legislative restatement of the equal protection clause of the constitution — clarified that a discriminatory intent is not necessary, merely a discriminatory effect of vote dilution. The VRA has established minority group voting power as a fundamental cornerstone of American voting policy.
The LDF noted that since 1982, every Black elected Democrat – including all of the current 4 African American council members – has been initially appointed to their office, and that the Supreme Court has ruled that prior incumbency is a “special condition” meriting further inquiry into whether a local election system unlawfully restricts the ability of minority groups to elect candidates of their own choosing. Klein glossed over that major point of equity, creating a false equivalence of the current presence of selected more heavily melaninated council members with the voting power and electoral strength of the Columbus Black community. In fact, we believe this selection process bypasses and negates the latent voting power of our large and geographically concentrated Black community.
And because we know math – and know that only 25% of the Columbus electorate is African American — we know by rough approximation that no more than 25,000 of the roughly 105,000 voters in the 2017 election were Black, that the winning candidates had more than 55,000 votes each, and that if every Black voted for every incumbent (which we can say with 100% certainty is not the case), each incumbent received the majority of its votes from non-Black voters.
For Klein to create the false equivalence in implying that the 3 African American candidates represent Black Columbus is an insult to Black Columbus, every voter, and to the candidates themselves – they represent the majority population that selected them by appointment, funded their citywide campaigns, and voted them into office. Black Columbus has no electoral voice on our at-large city council. We recognize the above is math of an equity claim, not the math of a voting rights act claim; and we have engaged the Legal Defense Fund to assist us in that voting rights act claim statistical analysis.
The very fact that the law firm that ended Jim Crow, by litigating Brown v. the Board of Education, and that successfully ended at-large elections across Alabama (Dillard v. Crenshaw County), which resulted in the elimination of at-large voting in 176 jurisdictions across Alabama, and more recently in Georgia State Conference of the NAACP v. Fayette County Board of Commissioners has this issue on its radar, when it is also litigating national issues like the Trump Voter Suppression Integrity Commission (Legal Defense Fund v. Trump) and the Wisconsin Political gerrymandering case (Gill v. Whitford) should make Columbus take note of its tenuous legal position – if not its discredited historical position.
The LDF notes that Columbus City Council is empowered by our city charter to put a proposal on the ballot that would fully comply with the letter and intent of the Voting Rights Act. We are concerned that the council does not fully understand this issue, as evidenced by its refusal to disavow the ridiculous 2016 Charter Review Committee proposal to create 9 districts elected at-large, which structurally creates vote dilution of minority votes. Through our engagement of the LDF – the nation’s experts in this issue – we will bring them to town to meet with community and council, and to provide information on best practices in election system design. We hope that such constructive engagement by an open-minded council of community leaders that that truly represents all of Columbus – including its Black citizens – will result in voluntary change to our system of elections, as has been done by every other big city across the nation.
We understand Mr. Klein’s vacuous letter to be his own opinion – it was not an act or a decision of the council – and we look forward to bringing the LDF to town after the holidays to continue this discussion with the city council about its support for appropriate 21st century representation for Columbus’s Black community.
For more information, contact Jonathan Beard, Treasurer, Everyday People for Positive Change, 1112 E. Main Street, Columbus, OH 43205. Cell: (614) 395-1946 ,or David Harewood, Campaign Manager, Everyday People for Positive Change. Cell: 614-706-7364