Port Chester board move to settle voting rights suit

By Liz Sadler
Published April 17th 2007 in The Journal News

By LIZ SADLER <MAILTO:[email protected]>

(Original publication: April 17, 2007)

PORT CHESTER - Lawyers for the village will begin settlement discussions today with the Department of Justice after the Board of Trustees authorized talks to resolve the federal voting rights lawsuit.

The board voted 5-0 last night in support of settling the lawsuit, but stopped short of endorsing the voting districts proposed by the Justice Department. The board is instead recommending alternatives to districts that it says would give more power to Hispanic voters, including a method called cumulative voting.

In a cumulative voting system, voters cast the same number of votes as the number of open seats but may vote more than once for the same candidate.

"Cumulative voting as an alternative to districting, I personally believe is a win-win," said Mayor Dennis Pilla, who first proposed a cumulative voting system during his campaign. He said the system does not place too much emphasis on race and gives equal rights to minority and nonminority voters.

The board directed its lawyers to report back in writing by Friday.

Justice Department spokesman Herbert Hadad declined to comment on whether the federal government would consider cumulative voting as a settlement option.

Under that scheme, if members of a minority group get behind a single candidate and cast all of their votes for him or her, they will likely elect their preferred candidate, according to FairVote, a Maryland-based organization that advocates cumulative voting and two other methods to settle voting rights lawsuits.

Jack Santucci, an analyst at FairVote, said more than 100 municipalities were using cumulative voting or a similar system.

"There comes a point where ... you're throwing good money after bad. In this case we're spending scant resources that can probably be spent in other ways," Republican Trustee John Crane said.

"I think this resolution is a great step toward trying to resolve this litigation short of a district plan," Crane said.

Because the village elects its six trustees and the mayor in "at-large" villagewide votes, the Justice Department sued in December. Officials assert that the method was unfair to minority candidates and want the village to change to a district voting system.

Last month, U.S. District Judge Stephen Robinson halted the March 20 village election for two trustee seats, capping a hearing on whether to stop the election based on claims that the current voting system violates the federal Voting Rights Act.

A cumulative voting system would keep at-large elections, which Santucci said had the advantage of keeping elected officials from catering only to their small base areas. Also, districts can be hard to draw if the minority population is dispersed.

Vincent Fontana, a Long Island lawyer specializing in voting rights cases, said the cumulative voting method has not been generally accepted by the Justice Department because it is complicated to use and difficult to figure out winners.