In first NY Voting Rights Act suit, Hispanic voters sue Hudson Valley town for diluting their votes

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By Dan Sears

Five Hispanic voters in Mount Pleasant, New York filed a lawsuit Tuesday in Westchester County State Supreme Court accusing the town of maintaining an election system that dilutes the power of their votes and prevents them from electing a candidate of their choice to the town board.

The case now becomes the first in what is poised to be a growing number of challenges over potential voting rights violations among voters of color in local elections across the state. It marks the inaugural lawsuit filed under the newly enacted John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act of New York, named after the late Georgia congressman and civil rights champion.

“We’re not just talking about having a Hispanic elected official,” said Westchester County Legislator David Imamura, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs in the case and a former chair of the state Independent Redistricting Commission. “The white majority of the town has systematically voted against candidates supported by the Hispanic population.”

The suit seeks to replace Mount Pleasant’s at-large voting system — which lets voters across the town vote for all the candidates in local elections, as there are no districts — with an alternative that would make it more likely for a Hispanic person or other candidate of the community’s choice to be elected to the town board.

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The town has a four-member board and one supervisor. The lawsuit alleges the way elections work there means Hispanic voters have never been able to elect their preferred candidate and have effectively been silenced in policymaking.

The town was put on notice five months ago that its system for electing town board members was subject to a complaint under the state’s Voting Rights Act. A provision of the law that took effect last July gave protected groups, including racial minorities, the right to take legal action against alleged voter suppression and vote dilution.

The latest U.S. Census figures show Mount Pleasant’s population of 45,000 people is roughly 72% white and 19% Hispanic.

In July, when Mount Pleasant was first notified its at-large voting system potentially violated state law, the town board hired two experts to analyze its elections: Jeffrey Wice, an adjunct professor at New York Law School and senior fellow at the school’s New York Census and Redistricting Institute, and Lisa Handley, an expert in election boundary analysis.

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Both experts concluded the town’s elections dating back to 2015 were “racially and ethnically polarized,” in violation of the New York’s Voting Rights Act. White voters and Hispanic voters consistently preferred different candidates, and the candidate preferred by white voters won five out of six elections, according to the experts.

Wice recommended in his report that the town hold public hearings to come up with a new voting system. He also noted that under the state Voting Rights Act, “challengers can bring a costly and time-consuming action in State Supreme Court unless a mutually agreed upon solution is reached.”

While Mount Pleasant held public hearings last fall, the board opted not to propose any changes to its voting system.

“It’s pretty sad because you go [to] exercise your right [to vote] already knowing that there is no hope,” said Sergio Fernando Serratto, one of the five named plaintiffs in the case. “If you know you have no hope as a candidate, as a voter, what are you going to do? You stay home with your family or go to work instead of wasting time with something that there is no hope [for].”

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The town’s attorney Darius Chafizadeh of the law firm Harris Beach did not respond to Gothamist’s request for comment.

On Tuesday night, just hours after the lawsuit was filed, the town board voted to hire the firm BakerHostetler to represent them in the case.

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