NY village gets new voting system to aid Hispanics

AP News
Posted: Nov 06, 2009 5:36 PM

A federal judge imposed an unusual election system on a suburban village Friday, nearly two years after finding that the existing system was unfair to Hispanics.

The village, Port Chester, is run by a mayor and six trustees. Under the new system, called cumulative voting, residents will be allowed to cast as many as six votes for one trustee candidate.

No Hispanic had ever been elected trustee or mayor in the village 25 miles northeast of New York City, although the population of 28,000 is about half Hispanic. The ruling is likely to mean that the village will have trustee elections next year for the first time since 2006.

Village officials said they were elated that Judge Stephen Robinson had not ordered that Port Chester be divided into districts.

"We got our preferred remedy of choice," said village attorney Anthony Piscionere.

Under cumulative voting, all six trustee positions would be at stake in each election and voters would have six votes each. A voter could cast six votes for one candidate, one for each of six candidates, or any other combination of six or fewer votes.

Both sides told the judge Friday they would work together to come up with a plan to implement the new system and educate voters about it. The judge said he hoped elections could be held in June.

"Port Chester is committed to making this a model," Piscionere said.

Cumulative voting is not used anywhere else in New York, but is becoming more popular and can be found in Alabama, Illinois, South Dakota and Texas, said Rob Richie, executive director of FairVote, an election research and reform group. It is most commonly used for school board elections, though Peoria, Ill., uses it for City Council elections, Richie said.

In January 2008, Robinson ruled in favor of a Justice Department lawsuit that said Port Chester's existing system violated the Voting Rights Act by diluting Hispanics' votes.

Under the outlawed system, two of Port Chester's six trustee seats were up each election year and the entire village chose from the candidates. Most voters were white, and white candidates always won.

After ruling in the federal government's favor, the judge asked both sides to suggest a new system that would solve the problem. Meanwhile, elections were suspended.

The Justice Department's plan would have divided the village into six districts, with each electing one trustee. One district would be drawn to include Hispanic neighborhoods, increasing the chances that a Hispanic-backed candidate would be elected.

Port Chester officials, however, noted that because many Hispanics are not citizens, the special Hispanic district would have fewer eligible voters than other districts. That would violate the one-person, one-vote requirement of the Constitution, village attorneys said.

The village also said cumulative voting would be more likely to elect more than one Hispanic-backed trustee. FairVote agreed when it filed briefs in the Port Chester case.

"You can be in the political minority and still get a share of representation roughly equal to your share of the population," Richie said.

He cautioned, however, that success depends on voter participation.

"In Port Chester, the Latino community has the numbers," he said. "They can earn one if not two seats, but they will need to participate and find candidates they like."

Currently, the Port Chester Board of Trustees has three holdovers from before 2006, two appointees picked by the other members and one vacancy. Officials aid cumulative voting would spare the village the expense of drawing new boundaries, redrawing them every 10 years and maintaining multiple polling places.