NAACP Legal Defense Fund Asserts Electoral Process Violates Voting Rights Act
Over the last several months, Columbus City Council has been exchanging letters with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF) regarding the city’s at-large voting system, appointment process, and policy priorities. Starting in November, the LDF accused Columbus’ at-large voting system and appointment process of violating Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but the accusations have snowballed since then. In response to a letter from Council President Shannon Hardin sent in February, which referenced “objective data” proving the current system complies with Section 2, LDF Senior Counsel Leah Aden is now requesting that data, as well as data showing the city addressing the needs of communities of color over the last decade.
“We continue to have serious concerns that an at-large system in which every Black councilmember for decades has been elected as an incumbent only after an initial appointment by the Council denies Black voters of the equal opportunity to elect their preferred candidates to the Council as Section 2 requires,” the letter states.
With the exception of a councilmember named Jeanette Bradley, who served from 1991 until 2002, every Black councilmember Columbus has had in the last 20 years has first been appointed by other members of Council before winning re-election as an incumbent.
The LDF letter used council’s recent appointment of Emmanuel Remy to council as another failure to meet the needs of voters. Jasmine Ayres, who ran for council and earned the fourth-highest number of votes, applied for appointment and was not chosen, despite receiving more than 31,000 votes in the November 2017 election.
“Though a finalist for the appointment, the Council did not appoint her,” the letter states. “Indeed, despite Ms. Ayres’s demonstrated and substantial support from Columbus’s voters, the Council appointed Emmanuel Remy. This outcome is emblematic of residents’ deep concern that ‘people who make the rules don’t live our lives.’”
Any attempt to change the functions, composition, or size of Council has failed, including a ballot initiative that appeared on the August 2016 special election ballot, which had low voter turnout. Hardin used this as evidence that the majority of the city is in favor of the current voting system.
However, the LDF letter says support for a district-based system is alive in neighborhoods like the East Side, which has a high concentration of racial minorities, but the 2016 issue was voted down “in the face of opposition by City Hall and developers and other businesses that made substantial financial contributions to defeating the initiative.”
Council has since voted to place a charter amendment, recommended by the council-created Charter Review Committee, on the primary ballot. Issue 3 would add two members to council for a total of nine members and implement a district-at-large system whereby each member would come from a certain district but would be elected by the entire city. The amendment also added a one-time public meeting requirement before the appointment of a new member to council.
The LDF says that still won’t cut it.
“As we previously mentioned, the proposed voting structure (i.e., 9 members subject to a residency requirement but elected at-large) may create the perception that voters will have a representative chosen by a neighborhood community,” the letter states, “but the maintenance of the at-large voting scheme for all members of the City Council will likely continue to diminish the voices of Black voters in Columbus.”
Beyond the essential composition and functions of council, the LDF has critiqued the number of members that have ran for another office before the end of their term. Specifically, the letter looks at Michael Stinziano, who started in 2016 and, in January, announced his intention to run for County Auditor; Jaiza Page, who was appointed in 2015 and is now running for Judge in the Court of Common Pleas; and Zach Klein, who during his three years as councilmember sought three different political seats and is now City Attorney.
“This begs the question of what form of representation Columbus’s residents generally and Black residents specifically are receiving since councilmembers seemingly view their time on Council as a stepping stone to their next endeavor,” the letter says.
And finally, the LDF letter calls out council for its lack of response to issues that pertain to communities of color, including “income, infant mortality, adult health, employment, housing, city construction and contracting, commercial business, community development, and police contact.”
The letter ends essentially with a request for proof that the city’s electoral system and the priorities of council are not creating racially discriminatory results.
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