Damian G. Guevara and Leila Atassi, Cleveland Plain Dealer, August 22, 2007
Euclid’s system for electing City Council members discriminates against the suburb’s growing number of black voters, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.
U.S. District Judge Kathleen O’Malley ordered the suburb to revamp its election system to give black voters a greater say in council races. Her ruling came five days after a two-week trial ended.
The victory is important for the U.S. Justice Department, which has been criticized for ignoring voting-rights complaints from blacks during the Bush administration. The Justice Department also won a similar case in Florida, where Osceola County’s election system was found to discriminate against Hispanics by diluting their votes.
The Justice Department began investigating Euclid’s elections process in 2003. The city’s black population tops 30 percent, but black residents have never won election to the City Council or school board, failing badly in eight attempts since 1995.
Federal lawyers blamed the poor showing on an elections system that requires each candidate for four at-large council seats to declare the slot he or she is seeking.
The lawyers argued that the system thinly spreads black voters across the electorate and prevents them from forming a bloc to support a candidate of their choice.
City Council members fought desperately—and some say unwisely—with the federal government throughout the process. They refused to settle despite a federal mediator’s warning in June that they would lose if they tried to defend their elections system at trial.
“The judge clearly implied today that she found no overt racial campaigning,” [Council President Ed] Gudenas said. “So it wasn’t even about how people were running for office. It was strictly about how residents were voting. And most of us on council still believe that Euclid residents vote for the best candidate, regardless of age, religion, income or race.”
During the trial, Justice Department lawyers presented testimony that showed that candidates favored by minorities would lose even if blacks voted in equal force as whites.
City lawyers had argued that black candidates running for office ran weak campaigns and turnout by blacks was too low to put their favored candidates in office, arguments O’Malley rejected. She offered some stinging criticism against allegations by city officials that the case was divisive and unfair to the city.
“Frankly, that argument seems to point the finger in the wrong direction,” O’Malley said.
The city has long struggled with public debates marred by racial overtones.
Tuesday’s ruling did nothing to end the friction.
Said Gudenas: “The Justice Department admitted that no elected official did anything wrong. Instead they attacked the Euclid voters for not voting the way they’re supposed to vote. They’re good people, and they never deserved this kind of attack from the federal government.”