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 Robert Ihrie, attorney on behalf of the city of Eastpointe, describes the city’s course of action to bring an end to the two-year case with the Department of Justice regarding voting rights.

Robert Ihrie, attorney on behalf of the city of Eastpointe, describes the city’s course of action to bring an end to the two-year case with the Department of Justice regarding voting rights.

Photo by Brendan Losinski

Eastpointe council approves new voting method in local elections

Decision concludes two-year litigation with DOJ

By: Brendan Losinski | Roseville - Eastpointe Eastsider | Published June 7, 2019

EASTPOINTE — On June 4, the Eastpointe City Council announced a decree to implement ranked-choice voting for City Council elections within the city, bringing an end to a United States Department of Justice case brought forward in 2017.

The original case stated that because of the demographic breakdown of Eastpointe’s population, racial minorities — particularly African Americans — largely live in certain areas of the city, thus making electing minority candidates to the City Council more difficult in at-large, citywide elections.

“The original complaint filed in 2017 by the U.S. Department of Justice said, essentially, that although we don’t believe there has been any intentional discriminatory behavior, because of the demographic changes that have occurred in the city of Eastpointe over the last several years, this city, particularly, meets the standards of a court case called Thornburg v. Gingles from 1986,” said Robert Ihrie, an attorney for the city of Eastpointe. “It says that if the voters in a particular city meet certain standards with minorities living in one primary area and non-minorities living in another area, they might have a hard time electing minorities (to office).”

Eastpointe will be the first city in Michigan to utilize ranked-choice voting, although it has been used — to great success, according to the Department of Justice — in other states such as Maine and California.

“Ranked-choice voting is a voting methodology that is a little bit different,” said Ihire. “What we’re used to right now is, we walk into the voting booth and we pick one candidate. … That can result — if there are three or four or five candidates — with someone with only 40% of the vote winning because they got more than the other candidates. Ranked-choice voting is a methodology where if there are four people running for a City Council seat, each voter can rank their preferences. … As soon as one candidate gets at least 50% of the vote, they are the winner. If no one gets 50% in that first round, the lowest first-place vote-getter is eliminated. The second-place votes for each are then counted, and so forth, until someone crosses the 50% point.”

The new voting method will be first used in November for the City Council elections. All non-municipal elections, as well non-City Council local elections, such as the election of the mayor, will continue to use the former at-large voting style

The approval of the ranked-choice system in Eastpointe will be subject to approval by the federal district court in Detroit, which was determined by the involved parties to resolve the Department of Justice’s lawsuit with the city of Eastpointe filed in 2017. The city and Justice Department filed a motion to approve the decree June 5, but the timetable upon which the court will make its decision was unknown.

City officials were confident that the judge would approve the decree.

Ihrie said the city was never fighting to preserve the former voting methodology, but rather, the city was working with the Department of Justice to determine how to best solve what they agreed was a problem in the city.

“After a long period of time, an analysis of the facts by our expert witnesses and the Department of Justice’s expert witnesses, and after meetings with the judge and magistrates assigned to this case, the Eastpointe City Council felt there were a number of methodologies that could be used to assist in resolving that difficulty. Ranked-choice voting is the methodology the council thought was the best, and the Department of Justice was pleased to acknowledge this methodology will … enhance the abilities for minorities to elect minority candidates.”

Ihrie said many federal and appeals courts, as well as the Department of Justice, believe this methodology does accomplish the goal of ensuring that minorities have a statistically stronger chance to elect a candidate of their choosing.

Ihrie added that a district system also was considered, where City Council candidates would represent certain sections of the city, which would include some sections where minority voters are the majority. He said the City Council believed this could do more harm than good.

“We didn’t want the city to be separated into a ‘white district’ or a ‘black district,’” said Ihrie. “We didn’t want the city separated under any sort of racial lines. The city has worked very hard in previous years to acknowledge the demographic changes in the city and accommodate those changes so Eastpointe stays a community (for all its residents).”

The Department of Justice worked with the city of Eastpointe to put together the decree and is in full agreement regarding the issue’s resolution.

“This agreement reflects the Department’s resolute commitment to vigorous enforcement of the Voting Rights Act to protect the right to vote in all elections,” Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division Eric Dreiband said in a press release. “We are pleased that the City of Eastpointe has worked cooperatively with the Department to adopt a solution that safeguards the right to vote.”

“Voting is the cornerstone of our Republic, and the Justice Department is committed to protecting and strengthening the right to vote,” United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan Matthew Schneider added in the press release. “This settlement reflects the desire of all of the parties to ensure the citizens of Eastpointe have a meaningful opportunity to choose their elected representatives.”

Councilwoman Monique Owens, currently the only African American member of the Eastpointe City Council’s five-member body, said she believed the new voting method would address the matter. She said the new voting process also would be accompanied by additional educational efforts to improve voter turnout in the community.

“I think it addresses (the problem) and I think the education aspect addresses the greater problem overall,” she said. “In the lawsuit, a key issue was that African Americans weren’t coming out to vote, and we talked a lot about how many of these African Americans weren’t properly educated about the voting process.”

The educational methods are still being planned, but Owens said this will mostly consist of community outreach. It will require some cost on behalf of the city, according to Ihrie.

“There will be costs to the city,” Ihrie said. “They have not been fully quantified by this point; the public education program will certainly require some cost to implement. This cost is far, far less than continuing litigation, and it is a cost that the City Council believes is a valid and worthwhile cost to accomplish this worthwhile change.”

He added that the city’s current voting equipment, such as voting machines and computer software, should be able to accomodate ranked-choice voting and would not have to be replaced.

Between the new voting method and the educational outreach, city officials believe this will better enfranchise minority residents in the city.

 “This doesn’t mean every minority voter will see a minority candidate elected,” said Ihrie. “This means there will be more ability for a preferred candidate to get elected by minorities.”

Call Staff Writer Brendan Losinski at (586) 498-1068.