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Archive for the 'voting rights' Category

Port Chester attorney points to non-citizen population in districting debate


In an opinion piece on LoHud.com, one of the attorneys in Port Chester’s voting rights case revives questions about the effect of including non-U.S. citizens in the population count for districting purposes.

This argument came up during the DOJ’s lawsuit in Port Chester when the village was fighting a switch from at-large voting to single-member districts for trustees. Aldo Vitagliano (at left), who wrote the opinion piece, and attorney Anthony Piscionere argued that the presence of so many non-citizens in Port Chester would skew the voting power of people in various districts, violating the “one person, one vote” principle. An organization called the Project on Fair Representation argued this point also.

At the time, one of the plaintiff’s lawyers in the case told me that such an argument was extremist nonsense — “a fairy tale.”

The village was ordered to change its trustee election system after it was deemed unfair to Hispanics, in violation of the Voting Rights Act. As it turned out, the village was not forced to create districts, switching instead to the unusual cumulative voting method as the remedy to its voting rights violation.

Posted by Leah Rae on Monday, August 9th, 2010 at 4:11 pm |

Port Chester attorneys see link in Supreme Court voting rights case


The Supreme Court’s voting rights decision this week dealt with a situation very different from Port Chester’s, but the village’s attorney is calling attention to a few lines within the opinion that he thinks have local implications.

Port Chester has already been found in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. Essentially, the judge ruled that the deck is stacked against village board candidates who are favored by Hispanic voters; the at-large system diminishes their political clout. So the village is only awaiting a ruling on how its village trustee elections should be remedied. As Randolph McLaughlin, attorney for one of the plaintiffs, told me yesterday, “It’s a dead issue. The only issue before this court right now is whether to create districts or not.”

But as we reported, the Republican challenger for mayor is talking about a possible appeal if the village is ordered to create single-member districts. And this week, attorneys Aldo Vitagliano and Anthony Piscionere, who represent the village, contacted us and said the Supreme Court decision cast doubt on the local ruling.

Piscionere pointed to an aside in the written decision by Justice Kennedy. It has to do with bloc voting by the white majority.

One of the things that the Justice Department had to prove in Port Chester was that the white majority was voting sufficiently as a bloc to defeat the candidates preferred by minorities — Hispanics, in this case.

In the North Carolina case that went to the Supreme Court, Justice Kennedy raised questions about whether the bloc-voting requirement had been met: “(We are skeptical that the bloc-voting test could be satisfied here, for example, where minority voters in District 18 cannot elect their candidate of choice without support from almost 20 percent of white voters….”

Piscionere pointed to evidence that Hispanic-preferred candidates in Port Chester, such as Cesar Ruiz, gained more than 30 percent of the white vote under the old system. He said, “This is the first case that I’ve ever seen (from the Supreme Court, he clarified) that has quantified the level of white bloc voting that should be looked at.” Piscionere had not yet decided whether to raise the issue with U.S. District Judge Stephen Robinson. Here was his formal comment:

The Supreme Court today decided a Voting Rights case which has implications for the Port Chester Voting Rights case. The Court decision casts serious doubt on a key element of the Government’s case and the Court’s decision on liability. The government contended and the Court found the presence of white bloc voting in Port Chester and decided the third Gingles prong against the Village.

Today’s Supreme Court decision questions how a plaintiff could satisfy the third Gingles prong when a minority preferred candidate of choice had support from almost 20% of white voters. In the Port Chester case, Cesar Ruiz and other minority preferred candidates received support from well in excess of 33% of white Port Chester voters.

McLaughlin, who is representing plaintiff Ruiz, said he wouldn’t hang his hat on that argument:

This case (USA vs. Port Chester) asked the question, ‘Has the white community historically over time voted in such a fashion as to defeat minority-preferred candidates?’ The answer to that question is yes, yes and yes.

(Photo: Tom Nycz/The Journal News)

Posted by Leah Rae on Wednesday, March 11th, 2009 at 11:48 am |
| | 1 Comment »

Westchester letter to voters, in Spanish, has election date wrong


The Spanish-language translation of a letter to voters, sent out by the Westchester County Board of Elections, has a certain error: the wrong date for the general election. County officials say they’re planning a round of bilingual, automated calls tomorrow to clarify the date.

The letter notifies voters about the availability at the polls of ballot marking devices, the new voting machines that will accommodate those with special needs. The English version notes the correct date for the general election, Nov.4, but the attached Spanish version puts the date at Nov. 9.

The Board of Elections failed to catch the error, Deputy County Executive Larry Schwartz said. The phone calls are meant to clear up any confusion that might result, he said, adding that he doubted anyone was unaware that Tuesday’s the day.

“If you don’t know Election Day is Nov. 4, I think you’ve been sleeping for quite some time,” he said. The county will call voters in Cortlandt, Mamaroneck, Mount Kisco, Peekskill and Scarsdale, and additional areas if the need arises.

This comes as Westchester remains under a consent decree meant to ensure Spanish-language assistance at the polls and in written material.

The Westchester Hispanic Coalition contacted the Board of Elections today after hearing of the mistake.

“We’re happy that they’re moving quickly, and that they’ve admitted the mistake immediately,” said supervising attorney Patrick Young. “But we do hope that in the future they will give the same scrutiny to what’s put out in Spanish as to what’s put out in English.”

As new citizens, immigrants tend to be idealistic about American democracy, he said. “It’s extremely important that we not give them any reason to think that our democracy is
anything other that completely honest and above-board,” he said.

Posted by Leah Rae on Friday, October 31st, 2008 at 4:15 pm |


Port Chester’s voting system is now up to the judge


The attorneys in the Port Chester voting rights case are done talking, and now a federal judge will decide how to reform Port Chester’s village board election system. His job is to choose a system that will allow Hispanic voters to participate fully and that will fix the problems he found in his January ruling.

Judge Stephevoter.jpgn Robinson has found that Latinos are at a big disadvantage in a system where the trustees run in village-wide races for two open seats each year. The court found that if trustees ran in separate districts, one of which had a Hispanic majority, then Latinos would have a means to gain representation in their local government.

The case is complicated and easily misunderstood. Basically, the Department of Justice proved a set of problems with the old system. The voting pattern in Port Chester has been racially polarized, and candidates supported by the entire Hispanic electorate routinely lost. There was also the matter of a racist flier in 2007 and a lack of language assistance at the voting booths. No Latino, incidentally, has won office in a village that is nearly half Hispanic.

ruiz.jpgOne of the details mentioned in the final day of arguments yesterday was a bit ironic. (I didn’t have room for it in today’s Journal News article, attached below.) Cesar Ruiz, at right, the unsuccessful board candidate who sparked the case and became a plaintiff, doesn’t live within the proposed Hispanic-majority district. His attorney, Randolph McLaughlin, proposed that candidates in each new district not be subject to a residency rule.

There was also an intriguing discussion about how non-U.S. citizens figure into all this. I’ll get to that later.

(Top photo: Carucha L. Meuse/ The Journal News)

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Posted by Leah Rae on Wednesday, September 24th, 2008 at 1:39 pm |

Back in court: Port Chester voting rights case


USA v. Port Chester, the voting rights case, was back in court today in White Plains, and U.S. District Judge Stephen Robinson showed his characteristic good humor.

“I never thought I’d be saying this, but I actually missed you guys,” he told attorneys from the U.S. Department of Justice and the village. Robinson ruled Jan. 17 that the village board is elected in a way that denies Hispanics full participation. The question before him now is how to remedy the system.

The Justice Department is proposing six voting districts, each with its own trustee, to replace the current at-large voting. All six trustee seats would be up for election this fall, timed with the general election, and then the village would return next year to a staggered system in which two seats are up for election annually. In at least one of the six districts being proposed, the majority of U.S. citizens of voting age would be Hispanic.

The village’s proposal is cumulative voting. All six trustee seats would be up for election at the sapcvote.jpgme time, and voters would be allowed to “plump” their votes by casting up to six votes for the same person. This would be a departure from the usual remedy imposed by the courts in such cases. But the village will argue that it would give Hispanic voters a chance to elect their preferred candidate.

The news today is that the court has scheduled July 17, 28 and 29 as the hearing dates when each side will pitch their plan. The first to testify, on July 17, will be expert Richard Engstrom, for Port Chester.

An independent, nonprofit organization, FairVote, is seeking to make oral arguments also, and Robinson deferred judgment on that request. FairVote is advocating “choice voting” another system of voting that would preserve the at-large trustee seat. Under that system, voters would choose six candidates and rank them by order of preference.

Below is my story from February about how the village is bringing the immigration issue into the case.

(Photo: Dave Kennedy/The Journal News)

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Posted by Leah Rae on Wednesday, June 25th, 2008 at 2:30 pm |
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Judge strikes down rental ban in Texas suburb


The Dallas suburb of Farmers Branch, Texas, has been leading the charge in passing local ordinances aimed at illegal immigration — namely, a law forbidding the apartment rentals to the undocumented. Today, a judge struck down the ban as unconstitutional. But the legal activity will continue over a revised version of the ordinance, the Dallas Morning News reports.

Meanwhile, the same community is undergoing a Port Chester-like legal battle over voting rights for Hispanics. In testimony today, an unsuccessful council candidate described how the ban led to anti-Hispanic attitudes.

Posted by Leah Rae on Wednesday, May 28th, 2008 at 5:19 pm |
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Florida’s Osceola County ends fight on voting rights


Port Chester folks might be interested in the news out of Osceola, Florida, where a voting rights battle similar to the one under way locally seems to have reached an end.

Osceola County spent a reported $2 million fighting a Justice Department lawsuit before changing its voting system to single-member districts, which will give Hispanics a better shot at electing a candidate of their choice. The county school board, looking at a similar challenge, relented Tuesday. Board members will run in each of five districts instead of serving countywide.

The New York-based Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund had threatened to sue if the board did not change its at-large system, and voters in a referendum favored the change. Half of students in the Osceola school district are Hispanic, but no Hispanic has never been elected to the board.

“The school board did the right thing in giving the citizens of Osceola County what they asked for – fair elections,” Cesar Perales, PRLDEF’s president and general counsel said in a statement today. “We now urge those citizens who want to share power to run for office.”

In Port Chester, the Justice Department is seeking a system of six voting districts, each electing a member to the village board. The Port Chester school board is not a part of the case.

Posted by Leah Rae on Wednesday, April 9th, 2008 at 4:06 pm |
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More on Port Chester, Hispanics and local elections


No Hispanic has won elective office in Port Chester, despite being nearly half Latino. That fact has been oft-repeated in the voting rights case, which found that the election system discriminated against Hispanics. But the absence of Hispanic officials is technically beside the point. The Justice Department wanted to highlight this issue after my recent story about the latest development in the case.

“The issue for the Government is not Latinos winning elective office,” spokesman Herb Hadad points out. “It is that candidates supported by Latinos have never won. We have filed numerous briefs in this case that list white Italians as the preferred candidates of choice of Latinos. These candidates lose too.”

What the government needed to prove in this case was that Hispanics were politically cohesive and voted as a bloc, and that the white majority voted sufficiently as a bloc to defeat the minority’s choice. Judge Stephen Robinson wrote in his decision:

The evidence here is clear that in 12 of the 16 elections this Court views as most probative in this case, the candidates of choice of Hispanic voters in Port Chester were defeated by the candidates of choice of non-Hispanic voters.

He notes that Hispanics did see their preferred candidate win in three recent elections – Mayor Dennis Pilla’s victory in 2007 and two trustee races in 2006. But that doesn’t negate the overall trend, he wrote.

In sum, it is clear to this Court that Hispanic voters and non-Hispanic voters in Port Chester prefer different candidates, and that non-Hispanic voters generally vote as a bloc to defeat Hispanic-preferred candidates.

(For the record, only two Hispanics have ever been on the ballot for village board: Jose Santos, as a Republican, in 1992, and Cesar Ruiz, as a Democrat, in 2001. Both finished last.)

The Justice Department is proposing that Port Chester hold a special election next year for all six trustee seats. This time each trustee would represent a particular district, and one of those districts would have a Hispanic majority among eligible voters. After the special election, two trustee seats would be up for election each year.

The village is proposing to elect all six at-large trustees simultaneously through cumulative voting. Voters would be able to cast up to six votes for the same candidate.

Posted by Leah Rae on Wednesday, March 19th, 2008 at 1:33 pm |
| | 1 Comment »

Port Chester files rebuttal over Hispanic-majority voting district


Port Chester voters will sit out another election day tomorrow as the village continues to fight the U.S. Justice Department’s charge that its system discriminates against Hispanics. Today, the village filed a report in U.S. District Court by Clark Bensen, who has been retained as an expert witness.

Bensen’s report picks apart the government’s plan to create six new voting districts in Port Chester, each of which would each elect a trustee to the village board. Currently the board members serve at large, and that, according to the government, has prevented any Latino from winning elective office. Two Hispanic candidates ran for village board and lost, despite overwhelming support from Hispanic voters.

Bensen, founder of the company Polidata, disputes the way census data was used to draw the district boundaries. He argues, as the village has done, that the votes in each district would carry vastly different amounts of weight because some districts have large numbers of noncitizens. Votes in the proposed Hispanic-majority district would be worth two or three times the votes in other areas, Bensen’s report says.

U.S. District Judge Stephen Robinson has ruled that Port Chester’s system violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. He has received proposed remedies from each side in the case – on one side the Justice Department and former candidate Cesar Ruiz, and on the other side, the village. The judge has yet to set a hearing date to determine the final remedy.

Meanwhile, Port Chester is keeping an eye on a North Carolina voting rights case headed for the U.S. Supreme Court that the village says has implications for its own.

Posted by Leah Rae on Monday, March 17th, 2008 at 12:41 pm |


NY lawsuit demands timely naturalization


A lawsuit filed yesterday on behalf of legal immigrants in New York demands that long-delayed citizenship applications be handled in time for the November election.

The complaint, linked here, names several Latino plaintiffs from New York City and is filed on behalf of other citizenship applicants served by the New York district office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. (NYC, Westchester, Rockland and Putnam are part of the district.) One plaintiff is a Navy veteran who is unable to get a government job for lack of citizenship; another cannot get a visa for his elderly mother so that she can visit the United States from Mexico. And all, of course, cannot vote for the next president if their cases remain stalled. The suit was brought by the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund.

The complaint demands that applications filed before March 26 by those found eligible for citizenship should be able to naturalize in time to vote. (New Yorkers must register to vote 25 days in advance of the election.) Officials at USCIS in New York said last week that they have stepped up processing to handle a spike in paperwork filed last year, but they repeated estimates that applications would now take 16-18 months on average. The suit says more than 140,000 cases are on hold because of FBI “name checks,” and that hundreds of thousands of applicants are waiting up to two and three years. The law calls for processing to be completed with 180 days.

Other documents related to the case can be found here.

Are you waiting in line for citizenship? Let us know whether or not your application is delayed and how it’s affecting you.

Posted by Leah Rae on Friday, March 7th, 2008 at 9:37 am |

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