Michigan City Accused of Voting-Rights Abuses

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DETROIT (CN) – The U.S. Justice Department filed a federal lawsuit late Tuesday challenging the election system for a Detroit suburb’s city council, arguing it favors white candidates over black ones.

The federal government claims Eastpointe’s method of using at-large candidates violates the Voting Rights Act by denying black citizens an equal opportunity to elect their choices.

“Social, civic and political life in the city of Eastpointe remains divided along racial lines,” the complaint states. “This racial separation results in black candidates for city office having less opportunity than white candidates to solicit the votes of the majority of voters.”

In spite of a growing black population that makes up approximately 34 percent of the city’s eligible voters, no black candidate has ever been elected to Eastpointe’s City Council.

The lawsuit alleges a pattern of racial discrimination in Eastpointe and Macomb County. It also blames staggered terms and off-year elections for the disparity.

“Eastpointe has a history of official discrimination—including race-based residency restrictions—that effectively excluded black residents from Eastpointe for decades. More broadly, Macomb County has a history of discrimination against black residents in areas including housing and public employment,” according to the complaint, which was filed in Detroit federal court.

The city and the county have previously stirred controversy with a proposal to block streets that connect to the predominately black city of Detroit, the Justice Department says.

“Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act prohibits practices such as Eastpointe’s at-large City Council system where they improperly dilute the ability of citizens to elect the candidates of their choice,” Eastern Michigan U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade said in a statement. “We filed this lawsuit to ensure that all voters in Eastpointe have a fair opportunity to participate in their local government.”

The lawsuit requests a court order to stop the usage of the at-large system and have the city devise a more equal voting process. One possibility is to create districts for each city council member.

The Justice Department said it was working with the city to reach a settlement and the discussions were “positive.”

City Manager Steve Duchane, a defendant in the complaint, said the city has already initiated discussions with the Justice Department and officials hope a settlement can be reached without lengthy and costly litigation.

“Tuesday’s action was not unexpected,” Duchane said. “We understand that our demographics have changed, that minorities are an increasing segment of our population and that it may be time to replace a voting system that’s been in place for nearly 90 years with a new method that affords minorities a better chance to have representation on our City Council.”

Duchane said the city’s black residents have never formally expressed concerns over the at-large voting process for city council. If and when a district voting system is enacted, the city may need to spend up to $50,000 to change polling precincts, register new voters and issue new voting cards, Duchane said.

City council member and defendant Sarah Lucido told Courthouse News via email that Eastpointe’s “changing demographics are not effecting [sic] our ability to live in unity with our neighbors.”

“To imply, without evidence, that in the year 2017 our residents will only vote for candidates of their own race is not only insulting, it is factually incorrect,” Lucido said. “We have asked our residents to voice their opinions and we are taking them all into consideration.”

Emailed requests for comment from three other city council members also named as defendants were not immediately returned Wednesday.