Final arguments today on Port Chester voting-rights remedy

By Leah Rae
Published September 23rd 2008 in Lower Hudson Journal News

A federal judge in White Plains will hear final arguments today on how to remedy Port Chester's village board elections, which were found to put Latino voters at a disadvantage.

In a last round of witness testimony yesterday, the village continued to resist a plan for separate voting districts - the traditional remedy - by arguing that those districts would have vastly different numbers of U.S. citizens.

The U.S. Department of Justice, which brought a voting rights case against Port Chester in December 2006, proposes to replace at-large trustee seats with six districts, each represented by a trustee. The village wants an at-large system that would let voters cast more than one of their votes for the same person - an alternative it says would give Hispanics or any other group a means to elect their candidate of choice.

Under the old system, U.S. District Judge Stephen C. Robinson has ruled, the Hispanic vote was diluted by villagewide voting. Candidate Cesar Ruiz lost in 2001 despite overwhelming support from Hispanics, for example. Ruiz is a plaintiff in the case.

As a rule, voting districts - whether for congressional seats or city council wards - are divvied up based on the total population. The proposed districts in Port Chester would each have about 4,600 residents, but the numbers of U.S. citizens of voting age would vary by zone. A proposed "District 4," for example, could wind up with fewer eligible voters than other areas due to the presence of noncitizens.

Such disparities already exist in other election systems, particularly among New York Assembly districts and New York City Council seats. But the village, calling on expert Richard Engstrom, said Port Chester could expect wider disparities. And that, Engstrom argued, is a reasonable issue to consider in choosing the new election system.

The Department of Justice suggested that the citizenship issue was entirely beside the point, absent from the law. Assistant U.S. Attorney David Kennedy pressed Engstrom to acknowledge that the variance in the citizen population has never been a criterion in fixing a voting rights violation.

Robinson said the decision he now faces is whether or not the village's plan solves the problems he found in the Port Chester election system. The village has the obligation and opportunity to put forth its plan first, he said.

He expressed an openness to both sides, and asked the Department of Justice to spell out today why it would not favor the village's proposal, a system known as cumulative voting.

Port Chester Mayor Dennis Pilla said after the proceedings that he believed that plan would empower Hispanics across the village. He said of Robinson, "He asked the right question: Why can we not be allowed the remedy of our choice?"