The Village of Port Chester has a population of nearly 30,000 people, half of whom are Latino. But Latinos are only 20% of the voting age citizenry, so they had never elected one of their candidates of choice to the village Board of Trustees. The Department of Justice sued in 2006 under the Voting Rights Act, and a federal judge agreed that the Village's at-large voting system deprived Latinos of fair representation. In response, DOJ pushed for the creation of single member districts, while the village preferred a cumulative voting system. This is a system where all voters receive multiple votes, which they may cast on any candidate they want, and can even cast them all on one candidate if they wish. The federal judge sided with the village and ordered use of the cumulative voting system.
Yesterday, the election finally took place, and a Latino finally broke through and won election to the village board. The candidate, Luis Marino, received the fourth highest number of votes from among 13 candidates. The lessons of this election, and the process that led to Mr. Marino's election, are many.
First, this election makes clear ensuring electoral fairness is possible yet not easy. In Port Chester, for example, the village hosted 12 forums -- both in Spanish and English -- to appraise all voters of the new voting system and to even let voters practice voting under the new ballot. The village also engaged in an extensive educational program that included advertisement on television, bright t-shirts, lawn signs and tote bags, and notices sent to homes in kids' backpacks. This was all part of a consent decree, and all materials had to be approved in advance by DOJ.
Second, the Port Chester example also makes us think long and hard about the lengths we should be willing to go in order to ensure electoral fairness. In a village where a minority group is close to fifty percent of the population and twenty percent of the voting age population, should the minority group expect any representation in a 6-member board? Is it inherently unfair, without more, for this group to fail to elect any candidates of choice? This last question takes on greater urgency as the U.S. Supreme Court grows impatient with the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act. I agree with the village's mayor, Dennis Pilla, that the goal must be "level[ling] the playing field." We can only hope that the Supreme Court agrees, but can't say that I am optimistic.
Finally, this election makes clear that DOJ has an important role to play under the Voting Rights Act in ensuring electoral fairness for voters of color. To Mayor Pilla, the village went "above and beyond in terms of implementing this new election system." This was due in great measure to the efforts of DOJ. In the following year, we will hear a great deal about the Department's overreaching, especially in the context of the North Carolina case, LaRoque v. Holder. We should also hear about Port Chester, but I doubt we will.