November 1, 2017
Last Tuesday, I attended a forum on voting rights and the future of Port Chester elections hosted by the Sustainable Port Chester Alliance in conjunction with the Hudson Valley Justice Center (HVJC). I was one of about 30 people who heard attorney Rob McCreanor, Director of the HVJC, give an excellent overview of the history of voting in Port Chester along with a synopsis of the options for future elections. I came away from the forum in agreement with the Alliance that we need inclusiveness and transparency from the Board of Trustees in selecting the voting system to be used in 2019 and beyond.
There has been quite bit of confusion in Port Chester regarding the details of the U.S. Justice Department’s 2006 lawsuit against the Village. Mr. McCreanor explained the factors that led the DOJ to sue Port Chester and outlined why the court determined that the Village’s at-large voting system prevented Hispanic residents from participating equally in Village elections. As Mr. McCreanor reminded us, racially-polarized voting patterns in the village, racist appeals from candidates in village elections, and discrimination against Hispanic voters at the polls all contributed to the court’s decision.
So, where do we go from here? What system should we choose to ensure future elections are fair and encourage maximum voter participation? The presentation laid out a number of options, but for me, the most compelling alternative is what’s called a single-member district system. Under this system, we’d create geographically distinct voting districts and each of these districts would elect one resident to the Board of Trustees. This method is proven, makes elected officials more accountable to local neighborhoods, and would mark a return to the principle of “one-person, one vote.” The Alliance is still determining what kind of system it wants to advocate for, but I personally think single-member districts make the most sense.
Whatever voting system Port Chester chooses, the selection should involve as much of the community as possible and should be absolutely transparent. That’s why I’m supporting the following principles put forward by the Sustainable Port Chester Alliance:
1. The Board of Trustees (BOT) should work with community and faith-based organizations to immediately establish a commission of Port Chester residents to study voting systems and make recommendations. This commission should collaborate with the voting expert the Village is retaining.
2. The BOT should make publicly available all voting and registration data and reports compiled by the voting expert retained by the Village.
3. The BOT should hold public hearings and workshops and create other opportunities for Port Chester residents to have a real say in how we elect our leaders.
4. The BOT should refrain from making any decisions about the election system in Executive Session, i.e. out of public view.
As the Alliance has pointed out, the selection of a new voting system provides Port Chester with an excellent opportunity to strengthen our democratic system. Let’s start by choosing a system through an open and inclusive process that sends the message that residents truly have a say in important decisions in this village.
Alex Garcia, Port Chester