Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
If Donald Trump is looking for voter fraud, he need only look at the many attested cases of “voter dilution” that rob minorities of their political power.
So, yes, Donald Trump is again talking about voter fraud, claiming it as the reason he lost the popular vote in the presidential election by nearly 3 million. He is calling for a probe to get to the bottom of it. It is true that, as he tweeted, the names of some deceased people are still on voter rolls, and that some people’s names are listed on multiple rolls.
However, that does not mean that dead people are voting or that people are voting multiple times from different states. If Trump is unconvinced of that, he need only look to his Treasury pick Steven Mnuchin, his senior advisor Steve Bannon, and his daughter Tiffany—all of whom are registered to vote in two states.
But if Trump would like to see real evidence of fraudulent election activity, there are plenty of cities and counties for him to examine. He should Google “voter dilution.” It’s what happens when a city or county creates council districts where it would be impossible for minority residents to elect a candidate of their choice. This typically is achieved by replacing a council district where people of color constitute a majority with an at-large council seat that is elected by voters across the entire city or county. As a majority within a district, voters of color can elect a candidate of their preference, but if they are a minority across a city or county, their candidates can not compete for an at-large seat. It happens often, and there is plenty of evidence of it.
Exhibit A: The city of Pasadena, Texas, just outside of Houston. In 2011, Pasadena had eight city council districts, four of which had Latino majorities. But in 2013, white Republicans in the city colluded to construct a new system of six districts plus two at-large seats that would be elected citywide. Since Latinos have a minority voting population in Pasadena (roughly 48 percent), they could not win one of the at-large seats without crossover votes from white residents. Given the considerable level of racial polarization and segregation that exists in the city, that crossover is not likely to happen.
The new district map with six districts and two at-large seats was created and passed in 2014 and went into effect during the 2015 election. The outcome: Instead of the four-four split between Latino and white voters that existed across eight districts before (above), there are now three Latino districts and five white districts, because the two at-large seats easily go to white candidates.
The story of Pasadena City Council candidate Cody Ray Wheeler is instructional here. In 2013, he won his district by 32 votes, but in large part because he muted his Latino background while campaigning that year. Some in Pasadena knew Wheeler’s ethnicity, including his opponent Leroy Stanley, a white Republican who later claimed without proof that Wheeler won due to “illegal votes.”
As with Trump’s lies about illegal voting, Stanley’s were a distraction. The real problem was that while the city’s Latinos were gaining ground in their share of the voting population, having reached near-parity with white voters as of the 2010 census, their neighborhoods were suffering from a disproportionately low share of city resources. A less fair distribution of city council seats representing them made it more difficult for Latinos to change that dynamic. The U.S. Department of Justice intervened in a lawsuit against Pasadena that claimed the city violated the Voting Rights Act by diluting Latino votes in the city council district shakeup. A federal court ruling in August 2016 not only agreed, but also said that the city did this to intentionally rob Latinos of their vote. Reads the ruling:
Overweighting and overvaluation of the votes of those living here has the certain effect of dilution and undervaluation of the votes of those living there. The resulting discrimination against those individual voters living in disfavored areas is easily demonstrable mathematically. Their right to vote is simply not the same right to vote as that of those living in a favored part of the [jurisdiction].
Here’s why this matters: Pasadena is effectively split between its Latino-dominant northern half, much of which is in disrepair, and its white-dominated southern half, which sparkles with amenities. Wheeler is one of the city council members who’s been working on behalf of Latino residents to help bring needed infrastructure improvements to their neighborhoods. But that’s made difficult under a system where he is just one of three council members up against five council members representing the white majority. As explained in the court ruling:
Council member Cody Ray Wheeler testified that current District D would greatly benefit from work on major thoroughfares and that many roads need to be repaved. Water and sewer lines in District A need repair. Mr. Wheeler continues to receive calls from voters in current District D reporting that they cannot flush commodes when it rains and that lawns are flooding.
Mr. Wheeler testified that getting the City to fix streets on the north side “is always a fight. It is always a large effort . . . . When you call work orders in, things don’t get done as quickly on that side of town.” In one instance, the lack of sidewalks meant that Keller Middle School students had to walk in the street to get to and from school. Teachers petitioned at City Council meetings to ask for sidewalks. The City did not respond until media reports described the risks to the children. The City then built sidewalks. ...
In Anglo South Pasadena, by contrast, the streets are relatively smoothly paved and more quickly repaired than in North Pasadena. Streets are well lit. There are sidewalks on both sides of most streets, and they are generally in good repair. Rains that produce floods in North Pasadena do not in South Pasadena. Neighborhood associations in South Pasadena help maintain the infrastructure. Council member Wheeler testified that “it is almost another way of life in those parts of town.”
Wheeler also testified in that case that it’s largely because of these disparities that Latino voters in the northern districts don’t vote at full strength, believing that “the system is rigged against us.”
Here’s how the political legerdemain happens. When white Republicans feel their political power slipping away, because of the perceived threat of resources finally getting allocated to non-white neighborhoods—or cities—that have suffered from neglect, they appropriate the language of the oppressed (“the system is rigged”) to rally and preserve their own power. This is a trend that has happened over and over and over again, almost unanimously and exclusively by the Republican Party. And the myth is now gospel in the Trump White House.
The Pasadena case was resolved by a federal court ordering Pasadena to return to single-member districts. Not only that, but on January 7, Pasadena was entered into U.S. Justice Department oversight under the Voting Rights Act. That type of oversight power was mostly stripped from the Justice Department by the infamous 2013 Shelby v. Holder U.S. Supreme Court ruling. However, there’s a loophole in the Voting Rights Act that reactivates it for extreme cases of voter discrimination, for which Pasadena qualified. The city now can’t make changes to its election system without first gaining approval from the federal government.
Pasadena is far from the only case of this kind of voter dilution going on. On January 11, the Justice Department filed suit against the city of Eastpointe, Michigan, just outside of Detroit, for pulling the same shenanigans. There, African Americans’ voting power has been severely compromised for decades due to the at-large council election system there. While African Americans currently make up a third of the Eastpointe electorate, black candidates in Eastpointe have never won a election for city council, school board, or any legislative district.
Eastpointe sits in Macomb County, one of the counties that flipped from voting for Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016. The defrauding of minority votes due to at-large voting systems has, if anything, helped conservative and Republican candidates running for or retaining office, not hurt them. But this isn’t the kind of defrauding Trump would like to acknowledge. He’d rather pursue phantom “illegal votes,” for which there is no evidence at all.
In one of his tweets, Trump wrote he’d use the results of his probe to “strengthen up voting procedures.” If history is any indication, the outcome will likely be legislation that strengthens election procedures for white voters, possibly in the form of a voter ID law or some other restrictive measure. The difference this year, though, is there may be no Justice Department willing to intervene as it did in the Pasadena and Eastpointe cases.