In what is likely the Obama administration’s last voting rights enforcement action, the Justice Department sued the city of Eastpointe, Michigan this week for watering down the voting power of its black residents.
Though more than one-third of the city’s voting population is black, no black individual has ever been elected or appointed to the city council or school board in Eastpointe, and no black official has ever represented the town in the state legislature or in Congress. The lawsuit contends that this is due to the establishment of at-large voting — a Jim Crow-era system that enables the majority white population to keep even a sizable racial minority group from achieving any political representation. Instead of separating the city into districts, where each neighborhood elects a member to represent them, all city residents vote for every member of the council. This system has existed in the Detroit suburb since 1929.
“Eastpointe violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act by denying black citizens in the city the equal opportunity to elect representatives of their choice,” the Justice Department lawsuit argued, adding that the city also has a “history of official discrimination” that included barring black residents from living in certain areas and holding certain jobs.
“Eastpointe elections have been marked by subtle and overt racial appeals,” the legal complaint added, “including a proposal to close streets connecting Eastpointe to the predominantly black City of Detroit.”
Eastpointe’s city manager told the Detroit Free Press he is interested in settling the case out of court before this November, when the city council will hold elections. But he noted the current city council would have to approve any changes. Whether council members are likely to endorse reforms that could cost them their seats remains to be seen.
Though this is the first federal lawsuit of its kind in Michigan, the Obama Justice Department and civil rights organizations have aggressively gone after at-large voting systems across the country over the past couple years — from Yakima, Washington to Santa Barbara, California to Gwinnett County, Georgia.
Just last week, a federal court ruled that Pasadena, Texas was deliberately diluting the voting power of its Latino residents through at at-large system. Not only does the city have to go back to electing its city council with single-member districts, it will be the first jurisdiction in the country to be put back under the pre-clearance provision of the Voting Rights Act.
Before the Supreme Court gutted this provision in 2013, several states with a history of discriminatory voting practices had to seek Justice Department permission before making any changes to their election laws. Now, individual lawsuits like the one in Pasadena will have to document modern-day voter suppression and make a case for reinstating pre-clearance city by city, county by county, and state by state.
Kristen Clarke, the president of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, told ThinkProgress that her organization will be watching the new Justice Department carefully to “make sure they do not reverse course” on voting rights litigation.
“Voting discrimination remains alive and well in 2017,” she said. “Michigan is a place where voting remains deeply racially polarized, and some minority voters have been locked out of the process. Sadly, this is not an isolated example, and we see these kind of violations all over the country. There remains a clear need for the DOJ to keep their foot on the gas and really work to address voter suppression.”
Yet the robust voting rights litigation by the Obama Justice Department is unlikely to continue under Donald Trump. The all-but-certain future Attorney General, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), has referred to the Voting Rights Act as a “piece of intrusive legislation,” and told ThinkProgress in 2015 that the Supreme Court was “probably correct” in its decision to gut the federal protections. In his confirmation hearing this week, Sessions professed ignorance of one of the biggest voting rights cases from the past few years, a battle over whether Texas’ voter ID law intentionally suppressed black and Latino voters.
If the Justice Department pulls back on this work, civil rights groups like the Lawyers Committee are vowing to step in.
“We will continue to see efforts to make voting more difficult,” Clarke said. “So we need to change the conversation and focus on ways to expand access so that all eligible Americans are able to participate.”