NAACP LDF Critiques City’s At-Large Electoral Process for Having Racially Discriminatory Results
At the urging of local ballot issue committee Everyday People for Positive Change (EDP), the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF) issued a letter to the City of Columbus asserting that its at-large method of electing city council members has weakened the voting strength of Columbus’ black community and violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Section 2 prohibits voting standards, practices or procedures, including at-large electoral methods, that either have racially discriminatory intent or results. The letter calls for the immediate assessment and adjustment to Columbus’ electoral process, suggesting the use of single-member districts as one potential solution.
Leah Aden, Senior Council at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, wrote the letter which calls out council’s habit of using the appointment process and incumbency to elect every black member on council in recent history, with the exception of Jennette Bradley in 1991. Referencing the U.S. Supreme Court case Thornburg v. Gingles, Aden said appointments of minority individuals to elected positions in an at-large voting system could indicate vote dilution.
“Indeed, Columbus has been reputed to have informally recognized a “Black male” seat (occupied initially by James Roseboro and Jerry Hammond, for which, after Ben Espy resigned, Michael Coleman, Fred Ransier, Kevin Boyce, Troy Miller, and Shannon Hardin – all Black males, were subsequently appointed),” the letter states. “In recognizing the history of the city council making mid-term appointments of Black men to that seat, Franklin County Democratic Party chairman Dennis White said: ‘they’ve had a tradition of doing that, and it seems as if that has worked out.’”
Columbus City Council did create a Charter Review Committee at the end of last year, after the ballot initiative to establish district representation went down in flames at the August 2 Special Election. The committee ultimately recommended increasing the size of council to nine members, each residing in a different ward. The issue was tabled after a consensus could not be reached, but Aden said it would likely have no affect on vote dilution.
“While this proposed voting structure may create the perception that voters will have a representative chosen by a neighborhood community, the maintenance of the underlying at-large voting scheme for all members of the city council will likely continue to unfailingly diminish the voices of Black voters in Columbus,” she wrote.
Aden said black voters are being left out of decisions that directly impact them, specifically those around the city budget, spending and programming, contracts, permits, health and safety codes, zoning and land use regulations, licensing, municipal employment, and policing.
“The council has the power to shape policies on policing to address and prevent incidents, such as the fatal police shooting of Trye King, and other instances of police violence, brutality, and misconduct in Columbus against the Black population,” Aden said.
To avoid “potentially costly and lengthy litigation” council is urged to pursue an “inclusive, fair course of action” and respond to the letter by Monday, December 18. EDP is approaching the issue from another side, introducing a ballot initiative for the primary election on May 2 that would establish district representation, reform campaign financing, and address the council’s appointment procedures.
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EXTRA: To learn more about the ongoing discussion on ward representation at Columbus City Council, you can tune into the previously recorded Confluence Cast episode from July 2016: