A line of early voters waits outside the Franklin County Board of Elections in Columbus, Ohio. John Minchillo/AP

A group of residents is out to prove that the Ohio city’s voting methods are racially discriminatory, despite the current makeup of its representatives.

The majority of Columbus, Ohio’s, city council members are African Americans. But the city’s method for electing city council members is racially discriminatory, or at least this is what Jonathan Beard, a developer in Columbus’s poorest neighborhoods, is trying to prove. And the nation’s oldest and most respected civil rights organization thinks that he may have a point.

On November 17, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. [LDF] wrote a letter to Columbus’s seven city council members, which includes four African Americans, that reads:

At the request of EDP [Everyday People for Positive Change, an organization that Beard helps lead], LDF is conducting a review of Columbus’ at-large electoral method for members of its city council. We have substantial concerns that this electoral method may violate Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and other federal and state laws, by denying voters of color in Columbus of the equal opportunity to elect their preferred candidates to this important local body.

The electoral method in question is called at-large voting, in which people across the entire city vote for each city council member, as opposed to council members representing and getting elected by voters within a specific district, which is how most cities run. It’s a method with a troublesome history: In Southern states, at-large voting was employed to ensure that African Americans, who usually were in the minority, could not elect their peers. Northern cities also adopted this method to ensure control over city offices when African Americans began migrating there from the South. In a city where black voters are in the minority, it’s difficult for them to overcome the votes of the majority to elect a candidate of their liking, especially if white voters vote in a bloc.

Civil rights groups fought these methods off throughout much of the 20th century, especially after the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965, officially making it illegal to adopt election methods that discriminated against racial minorities. Still, as Facing South has reported, the U.S. Department of Justice has intervened in several cases in the 21st century to break up the at-large voting system in cities where black or Latino residents were unable to elect candidates of their choice. Portland is the only other large-sized city outside of Ohio that still uses the at-large voting system, according to OregonLive.com.*

But how can this method be racially discriminatory in a city like Columbus where, despite having a black population that is roughly 30 percent, the city council is majority black? Everyday People for Positive Change argues that it’s because those city council members were all initially appointed to their seats, not elected. The way this has worked, Beard explains, is a council member will resign before his or her term ends, and then the council fills the vacant seat until the next election. This has been how every black city council member has originally obtained their seat for decades, with just one exception, Jennette Bradley, an African-American candidate who obtained her seat originally via election, in 1991, as a Republican.

Today, the entire city council, and the mayor, is run by Democrats, which is not unusual for most large urban jurisdictions. As a recent editorial in the Columbus Dispatch urging city lawmakers to take this issue seriously explained, there’s been:

festering community frustration with the current scheme under which a monopoly of entrenched Democrats has long handpicked like-minded appointees and then financed their election win as part of their team. Dissident Democrats and Republicans are so severely disadvantaged by the fundraising edge and name recognition afforded incumbents, as well as the field-race structure, as to be effectively disenfranchised.

Once these candidates have been appointed to their seats, they have enjoyed the benefits of major funding and resources from the Franklin County Democratic Party for their re-election campaigns, which has put non-incumbent candidates at a disadvantage. A group of Columbus residents has been trying to mobilize to change this disenfranchisement since 2011, under various names: the Columbus Citizens Grassroots Congress, Columbus Coalition for Responsive Government, Represent Columbus, and today, the Everyday People for Positive Change group that Beard helps lead.

“[The city council] is a self-selecting body and they only select people of like minds,” said Beard. “They are all people who have been vetted by the business community, especially the black folk who are appointed. These are folks who have been approved by white Columbus essentially. It’s all Democrats, and the Democratic Party actually endorses people before the primary so there's never any intra-party competition. Half the time we never even have a primary election.”

“We had residents here who were held hostage”

The at-large voting method is not discriminatory on its face, explained Leah Aden, senior counsel for NAACP LDF. Other factors, such as racial polarization, must be considered that show that racial minorities can’t elect their chosen candidate. The case that Beard brought to LDF led Aden to believe there was enough smoke there to at least investigate.  

“What they made clear was that they wanted to be able to elect someone who represents them and the needs of their community, particularly the black community that is dealing with issues of housing, policing, economic development, and a host of issues that they don't feel represented on currently,” said Aden.

Indeed, there is a lot at stake: Last year, Columbus won the $50 million Smart Cities Challenge grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation—a grant that the city has leveraged upward to about $450 million, to spend on futurizing the city’s transit infrastructure. Columbus is also angling to land the highly coveted new Amazon HQ2 headquarters. Beard says that the council has not fielded input from black and poor neighborhoods on those ventures, though, and lacks the “neighborhood-based community development infrastructure” for that.

The city does have a Department of Community Engagement, though, and there are smaller divisions called area commissions that serve as liaisons between neighborhoods and the council. Columbus city council member Shannon G. Hardin, says these bodies help ensure fair representation despite the at-large voting system that relies heavily on appointments.

“For the Amazon proposal, we put in a bid that, like all bids, will help uplift all neighborhoods,” said Hardin. “With the Smart City grant we specifically wrote into our grants that the outcomes of these investment dollars will go to support and uplift the neighborhoods that are the most challenged in Columbus. There was no conversations among us as council members that said, ‘Well, this shouldn't go in the north side because I come from the south side.’ It was a very easy conversation to focus our resources on the neighborhoods that needed it most. That is the value of how this at-large system works.“

Columbus city council member Jaiza Page said both the Amazon and Smart City proposals “show the strength of our at-large system, and the fact that we are all equally concerned about every single area of the city. Any proposals that we're making, whether it's for a grant or for a new corporation to move its headquarters to our city, that is going to have an impact on all of our communities in our city as a whole. And we will do our best for those communities that have been historically disadvantaged to make sure that they are plugged into the plan for our city moving forward.”

Beard has plenty of personal interest in this fight. He has long criticized the city government for failing to address the needs of Columbus’s poorest and historically black communities. These are communities he helped salvage as president and CEO of the Columbus Compact Corp., a community development nonprofit he ran for two decades, until it was closed in 2016. Beard told The Columbus Dispatch that he had to close it because the city failed to support it.

But Beard says the fight over at-large voting is not about whether the city failed to invest in his work, but rather that the city failed to respond to its most vulnerable communities’ needs. His development activities took place primarily in the central-city and Near East Side corridors that HUD has designated as empowerment zones, because of the poverty and depravity of resources there. His Columbus Compact organization helped deliver a grocery store there and redeveloped a few homes, but it was difficult to get much going, says Beard, because of rampant drug-dealing activity and gun violence.

The city’s response to these problems was heavy policing, says Beard, particularly through a city ordinance that criminalized “loitering in aid of drug offenses”—an ordinance that was so sweeping that the city attorney eventually deemed it unenforceable.

He wanted something done about the crime, but he didn’t just want young black men locked up. He proposed to the city giving tickets or citations instead of arresting people for loitering. He wanted the city council to invest in a jobs program, to help get some of the young drug dealers off the streets. He had cameras installed in these neighborhoods, to capture what was going on and to help make the case for his requests.

“I had all this stuff on video showing that we had residents here who were held hostage,” said Beard. “The city refused to do anything, said we were playing politics with it, and that's when I was like, If we had just one city council member who lived in this neighborhood and could look these people in the face, it would be a completely different story.”  

Part of the problem with at-large voting systems like Columbus’s is that without districts, council members don’t have to actually reside in or even in proximity to many of the neighborhoods they are supposed to represent. This photo, shared on the Facebook page of Chris Arens of Westerville, Ohio, just outside of Columbus, claims that all of the city council members live in a narrow slice of the city.

(Chris Ahrens)

Page admits that council members “do live geographically close to one another,” with three of the members living on the east side and three living in the north side, but in neighborhoods that are diverse and different from one another. She also said that where they live doesn’t have any major impact on how they govern. However, this would not happen in single-member districts, which guarantees a more equitable distribution of city council representatives around the city.

“I think it's important to note that many of us grew up in Columbus,” said Page. “I'm from the Linden area, which is a community that hasn't seen a lot of growth. I believe our experiences and backgrounds are very reflective of all the residents that we serve and that brings value to our council and the policy decisions that we make.”

If Columbus did switch to single-member districts, that might yield unintended results. If Columbus were to move to a seven-district city council, then it’s quite conceivable that Columbus would have less African-American representation on its council than it currently has. Reason being, with a black population that’s less than 30 percent, that could mean the city might only be able to elect three black city council members at best rather than the four it currently has—and that’s only if the black population formed majority blocs in three separate districts. If the black population was segregated and concentrated in just one or two districts, there might only be one or two electable black council members.

But the Voting Rights Act is not concerned with that.

”The right that they're seeking is the right to have a fair chance in the process to elect their preferred candidate, and that candidate could be black or another color, but that's exactly what the Voting Right Act protects,” said Aden.

Beard concurs. In fact, one of the candidates he had hoped would win in the last city council election, as his preferred choice for representing a black neighborhood, was white: Joe Motil, who wasn’t able to make the ballot.

“It’s not about electing politicians of any color, it's about the power of the people to elect people of their own choosing,” said Beard.

“The arguments made in 1968...would sound familiar to you today”

The city council has by no means ignored this issue, having formed a commission last year to examine the city’s electoral methods, to see if there was anything there worth fixing. It was created after the Everyday People for Positive Change group was able to challenge the at-large voting method via a special election ballot referendum in 2016. The measure failed due to low voter turnout and fierce opposition from the local Democratic Party.

Despite that loss, the city council’s commission produced a 262-page document on the matter, which included testimony from elected officials past and present, historians, and other concerned citizens. Among those who testified was Michael F. Curtin, a former Columbus Dispatch reporter who now is a state legislator and political archivist. Curtin reminded the council that the question of at-large voting had come up for debate twice in the city’s history, in 1968 and again in 1975.

“The arguments made in that 1968 campaign would sound familiar to you today,” said Martin. “Those in favor cited greater representation of neighborhoods and a better chance for the little guy to get elected. Those opposed cited efficiency of government and the principle espoused in the 1914 charter proposal of every councilperson being responsible to every voter.”

A proposal in 1968 to change the system to single-district representation was put to a vote via ballot referendum and was defeated. The only wards of the city that voted in favor of the referendum were those with majority black populations. When the issue was put to a vote again in 1975, it was the same outcome, which in many ways proved the point that single-district representation was needed.

Columbus is not the only city in Ohio that uses at-large voting for its city council. Cincinnati uses it as well. But Columbus and Cincinnati are among the few remaining cities of large size in the nation that are using this. Other large cities that used at-large voting, such as Austin and Seattle switched over to district representation in recent years.

Many cities have made this change voluntarily, but more often that change has been made under threat of a lawsuit. The NAACP LDF has been the filer, and the victor, for many of those lawsuits, because under certain circumstances, at-large voting can be a breach of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. As explained in the LDF letter to Columbus:

Section 2 prohibits voting standards, practices, or procedures, including at-large electoral methods, that either have a racially discriminatory intent or have racially discriminatory results. One of the chief purposes of Section 2 is to prohibit minority vote dilution, which can occur when an at-large electoral system denies Black voters of the opportunity to participate equally in the political process and elect their preferred candidates because their votes are canceled out by the white majority who vote as a bloc. Indeed, courts have found that other jurisdictions in Ohio have violated Section 2 by maintaining at-large voting. For example, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio found that an at-large electoral system for city council and school board members in Euclid violated Section 2 because it diluted the Black voting strength in that city.

Hardin and Page say they take seriously the concerns listed in the letter and that the city will be responding soon.

“We are sympathetic to any constituents who feel that their voices have not been heard, particularly for those who are African-Americans, and as an African-American I want to understand more why that feeling exists,” said Page. “I believe the letter does bring up good points that we can look up to, but I understand there are legal requirements that must be met to determine whether or not our electoral system is violating the Voting Rights Act, and that’s something we are currently reviewing with our city attorney’s office.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story listed Portland as a city that switched from using the at-large voting system.

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