The Voting Rights Act of 1965 has in the past altered elections in
New York City, and it will continue to do so. Most immediately, the
act will ultimately determine whether New York City has nonpartisan
elections for all city officials as called for by Mayor Michael
Bloomberg and as almost certainly to be recommended by his charter
commission and placed before the voters.
The law was a culmination of the black civil rights movement and a
cornerstone of Lyndon Johnsons great society. With it, the federal
government would finally fulfill the promise of the Fifteenth
Amendment, enabling blacks to exercise the franchise unhindered by
exclusionary devices such as literacy tests, white primaries, poll
taxes and grandfather clauses. The law prevented states from
enforcing discriminatory tactics aimed at preventing blacks fair
opportunities to participate in the voting process.
The Voting Rights Act has been amended several times. Legislation
established the rights of language minorities, mandating bilingual
ballot and oral assistance to those speaking Spanish, Chinese,
Japanese, Korean, Native American languages and Eskimo languages.
Later amendments established that the existence of a discriminatory
result was sufficient to challenge an electoral arrangement. Proof of
discriminatory purpose or intent was not required.
Currently, the law covers all of Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia,
Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia, as well
as parts of California, Florida, Michigan, New Hampshire, North
Carolina, South Dakota and Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx.
APPLICATION TO NEW YORK
Why the three New York City counties?
As a result of a suit brought under the Voting Rights Act in 1967, a
longstanding concentration of blacks, previously divided among
several, mostly white districts, was consolidated into one district.
It sent Shirley Chisholm to Congress in 1968.
In 1970, the act was amended to include jurisdictions that had
literacy tests as of November 1, 1968 and where less than 50 percent
of the voting age population was registered on that date or voted in
the 1968 presidential election. In July 1970, the Attorney General
filed a determination that New York State maintained a test or a
device a literacy test enacted in 1922 that adversely affected
minority voting participation. In March 1971, U.S. Bureau of the
Census found that fewer than 50 percent of voting age residents were
registered in Bronx, Kings, and New York counties. Together these
determinations required the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Manhattan to become
covered jurisdictions subject to pre-clearance.
The three boroughs have been required to provide all registration and
voting material in Spanish as well as English since the 1975
amendments. In 1992, coverage for Spanish was extended to Queens and
coverage of Chinese was applied for the first time in all three
In 1991, the redistricting plan was thrown out of court, the judge
charging that Latino voters were consistently disfavored in the
proposed Williamsburg-Bushwick and Harlem-East Bronx districts in the
In the 1996 presidential election, federal election observers
monitored polling places in the Chinatown area to make sure the city
was making Chinese-language materials and oral assistance available.
The Sept. 25, 2001 Democratic mayoral primary was monitored by the
Justice Department for violations of the Voting Rights Act.
On May 29 of this year, the U.S. Justice Department ruled that the
City Council district lines drawn by the Districting Commission did
not violate the Voting Rights Act
HOW IT WORKS
Section 5 of the law requires state and local governments covered
by formulas specified in the act to obtain approval from the Attorney
General or a judicial panel before implementing any change in a
standard, practice or procedure with respect to voting. This
pre-clearance covers everything from polling place locations and
methods of election (e.g. at-large or district) to boundaries for
legislative districts. A proposed change will be denied if it would
make members of minority groups worse off with respect to
opportunity to exercise the electoral franchise effectively.
The Supreme Court in Thornburg vs. Gingles held that a challenge to
a reapportionment plan could be based on vote dilution effect...
The Court held that the essence of a claim under the Voting Rights
Act was that a certain electoral law, practice, or structure
interacts with social and societal conditions to cause an inequality
in the opportunities enjoyed by black and white voters to elect their
The Court established the criteria on which a claim of vote dilution
in an apportionment scheme could be made: 1) structural obstacles to
the election of minority candidates, such as at-large elections, 2)
behavioral patterns that interact with the structural obstacles to
exaggerate the political power of the majority such as racially
polarized voting, and 3) a resulting under-representation of the
minority community relative to its proportion of the population.
There is no constitutionally guaranteed right of proportionality in
representation. Section 2b of the Voting Rights Act states that
nothing in this section establishes a right to have members of a
protected class elected in numbers equal to their proportion in the
population. The Supreme Court has refused to accept the proposition
that members of a minority group have federal right to be represented
in legislative bodies in proportion to their members in the general
The voting power of a protected class can be said to be diluted
a simple sense when its share of the total vote cast declines
vis-à-vis others (i.e. white voters) even if the total votes cast may
have increased (or decreased) overall and for minority and white
Voting Rights Act and Nonpartisan Elections
The 1998, 1999, and 2002 New York City charter revision commissions
retained the services of voting rights expert Prof. Allan Lichtman
to determine the voting rights implications of a change to
nonpartisan elections in New York City. (The 2001 commission relied
on his previous work). Prof. Allan Lichtman concluded, in testimony
before the 2002 commission, that nonpartisan elections would not
violate the Voting Rights Act. He had reached similar conclusions
for the earlier commissions.
Critics have argued that the analysis was incomplete and, in some
measures, flawed. They also point to studies which have found that
voter turnout overall tends to be lower in nonpartisan elections and
voter participation is skewed against residents of lower
socioeconomic status (while candidates tend to have higher
If in New York City turnout declines (and even if it doesnt) and
minority voters share declines disproportionately as the evidence
indicates it may, then minority votes will be diluted -- and
perhaps violate the Voting Rights Act.
For More Information:
Berger, J. (1994). Pre-clearance and the Voting Rights Act New
York Law Journal, Dec. 15. Pierre-Louis, S. (1995). The Politics of Influence:
Recognizing Influence Dilution Claims Under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act
University of Chicago Law Review 62, 1215.
Doug Muzzio is a professor in the School of Public Affairs at Baruch College and a political analyst for WABC.
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