Thursday, June 5, 2008

Probe of election system begins

Groups to suggest reforms to at-large structure in late June

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The U.S. Department of Justice recently opened an investigation into whether Greenbelt’s at-large election system violates the Voting Rights Act.

Mayor Judith F. Davis declined to comment, saying she and Councilman Edward Putens were unable to confirm there actually is an investigation under way. Other council members did not return calls seeking comment.

DOJ spokeswoman Jamie Hais confirmed there is an investigation of the city’s at-large election system but said because the investigation is open, no official could comment further.

The Voting Rights Act, adopted in 1965, ensures African-Americans are not denied voting rights or are subject to practices restricting voting rights.

Deborah Jeon, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, sent a letter to Davis and the City Council Feb. 28 saying that historically, at-large election systems were effective in blocking out the minority vote for a minority candidate because the majority white population would eclipse the minority vote. She said the fact there has been no minority representation on the council in more than 70 years is of concern.

According to U.S. Census 2000 statistics, the city’s population was 41.3 percent African-American, 39.3 percent Caucasian, 12.1 percent Asian and 6.4 percent Latino.

The ACLU of Maryland, the county’s NAACP chapter and FairVote, a Takoma Park-based organization working toward equal representation in elections, will attend a June 30 public hearing in Greenbelt’s council chambers to discuss election reforms. Of the five largest municipalities in the county—including Bowie, College Park, Laurel and Hyattsville, Greenbelt is the only one that does not have district seats.

The NAACP reviewed Bowie’s then-at-large election system seven years ago and in the city’s 2002 elections, four districts and two at-large seats were established. Minorities have been represented on the Bowie council ever since.

Jeon said not every section of Greenbelt is actively engaged in elections but saw—particularly in the Springhill Lake community—that voter registration and turnout was higher for state and national elections compared to city elections. One suggestion Jeon has, which she has not yet brought before the council, is to have city elections the same year as state elections to increase voter turnout.

‘‘I think everybody wants the same thing, which is for there to be engagement from all parts of the community in the election process and for there to be representation in the community and city government,” Jeon said.

Walter Hamlin, an African-American who has lived in Greenbelt East for 17 years, said he became interested in the issue because he lives in one of the city’s larger tax bases, and added that it is only fair that he sees minority representation.

‘‘I’m not saying not have any at-large members, but I am saying that each district should have a belly button where they can say, ‘This is what I need in my community and you’re the person I need to come to, to address my concerns,’” Hamlin said.

Prince George’s County NAACP President June White Dillard said she hopes the city will make reforms without having to go through the court system. She would like to see some progress before the city’s next election in November 2009.

‘‘We had shared information with them about the possibility of using five districts and ACLU has a demographer and we attempted to make equal districts of about 4,000 people based on their current population,” Dillard said. ‘‘That was just a proffer as a possible way to make it more equitable.”

Resident Joan Falcao said she does not believe the current system is unfair, but would like to see seats added to the City Council.

Falcao said the NAACP should be aggressive in recruiting strong minority candidates to run for elected office.

‘‘I welcome the DOJ involvement because I don’t know what agenda they might have, but they would be less partial than either the ACLU or the NAACP,” Falcao said. ‘‘I think they would look at the true merits of the case, [which] is that the minorities can be on the council.”

Mel Franklin, president of the Greater Marlboro Democratic Club, said the city has been ‘‘very receptive” to the suggestions and concerns of the ACLU and NAACP.

‘‘They expressed concern with the lack of diversity,” Franklin said. ‘‘So I definitely believe there is a good opportunity to have a change or reform in the election system there without court action. I believe there’ll be a number of recommendations. I think the main one will be some sort of predominantly single member district composition in Greenbelt.”

E-mail Natalie McGill at nmcgill@gazette.net.

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