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Judge OK’s New Election System in Port Chester

(CN) - A new election system in Port Chester, N.Y., corrects the village's previous system, which violated voting laws by disenfranchising Hispanics, a federal judge in Manhattan ruled.

U.S. District Judge Stephen C. Robinson found that Port Chester's remedial election plan will cure the deficiencies that dogged its current system, which "denied the Hispanic population an equal opportunity to participate in the political process and elect representatives of their choice," he wrote.

In 2008 the judge said the village's "at-large voting scheme" violated the Voting Rights Act and ordered Port Chester to come up with a new system.

The plan he accepted will scrap the current 16 precincts that encompass the village and divide it into six districts, with a cumulative voting system, and one majority-Hispanic district to account for the growing Hispanic population.

Post Chester's population was nearly 28,000 in 2000. Hispanics increased by 73 percent between 1990 and 2000, from 7,446 to 12,884. As of 2000, Port Chester's total population was 46.2 percent Hispanic, 42.8 percent white and 6.6 percent black.

Despite the village's growing population, no member of the Hispanic community has ever been elected to the Board of Trustees.

Judge Robinson said the United States showed enough evidence to prove the presence of racially polarized voting and other discriminatory practices that affected Hispanic voters. He cited the "regrettable history of discrimination in employment, housing and education in the Westchester County area."

Under the old system, the village consisted of 16 precincts governed by a mayor and a six-member board of trustees. Each registered resident could cast up to two votes for trustee candidates, and voters were not allowed to vote for the same candidate twice.

This at-large voting system was rejected by the judge, who said it created racially polarized voting.

"The evidence presented in this case demonstrates that such a consistent relationship clearly exists in Port Chester: Hispanic voters vote cohesively, and the non-Hispanic community tends to vote as a bloc, generally resulting in the defeat of the Hispanic preferred candidates," Robinson wrote.

The judge also noted that Port Chester failed to provide Spanish-language inspectors at polling sites for trustee elections held from 2001 to 2006. A non-Spanish-speaking resident testified that she served as an election inspector 15 times in 25 years, "and only once worked alongside a Spanish-speaking inspector," despite a county-wide consent decree requiring at least one bilingual worker at each polling site, the opinion states.

Robinson also pointed to village school board elections in 1991 and 1992 that lacked Spanish-speaking voter assistance.

"At the very least, it is apparent that the Village Clerk's Office has failed to take proactive steps to address the needs of the Hispanic population in Port Chester, despite the rapid growth of the Hispanic community," the judge wrote.

The remedial plan will be in place for a June election, which was postponed to make sure the new system was properly implemented.

Under the cumulative system, "each voter would be allotted the same number of votes as there are seats up for election and would be free to allocate them however he or she chooses," the ruling states.

"Voters may choose to 'plump' all their votes on one candidate - the strategy of choice for minority communities who want to indicate a strong preference for a particular candidate," Robinson said. He found the strategy "legally acceptable under the Voting Rights Act, the Constitution, and New York Law."

"This does not mean that Port Chester is obligated to guarantee electoral success for Hispanics, but rather provide a genuine opportunity to 'exercise an electoral power that is commensurate with its population,'" he said.

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