By Jeffrey Tyler
A lawsuit brought by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund has finally allowed the Black residents of a small Alabama city to elect their preferred candidates for City Council. Since its incorporation in 1937, Pleasant Grove has not elected a single non-white City Council member – until now. The NAACP’s legal challenge, brought under the Voting Rights Act’s anti-racial-vote-dilution provisions, argued that Pleasant Grove’s “at-large, numbered-place” electoral system violated Section 2 of the Act because Black residents were consistently prevented from electing their preferred candidates.
As part of a settlement between the parties, Pleasant Grove agreed to implement a “cumulative” voting system which gives each voter five votes to allocate among the city’s five Council seats as they see fit. A voter may spend their five votes entirely on one candidate, or choose to give one vote to five candidates, or any combination in between. The five candidates with the most votes win. The result is that minority voters are able to concentrate their votes on their preferred candidates, creating a higher chance that those candidates win a seat. The majority concentrates its votes on its preferred candidates too, leaving fewer votes for the minority candidates’ challengers. The typical result is a winning mix of minority- and majority-preferred candidates that roughly approximates proportional representation of the two groups. Pleasant Grove held its first city elections under this new cumulative system on August 25th, 2020, and for the first time in history city residents were able to elect Black candidates to the City Council.
For decades, Pleasant Grove has employed a single “at-large” voting district in combination with a “numbered-place” system to elect each of its five City Council members. An at-large, numbered-place electoral system means that all city residents are grouped into a single city-wide voting district and the candidates for City Council must run for one of five seats. In the election, all eligible city residents may vote for one candidate for each of the five seats. Under this electoral method, two key demographic facts resulted in Black residents’ inability to elect their preferred candidates. First, the city’s population has been approximately 40-45% Black and 55-58% white since 2010. Second, the white population consistently votes as a cohesive bloc for white candidates only. This demography, combined with Pleasant Grove’s at-large elections, gave the white majority the power to routinely elect white candidates for all five Council seats. Despite growing into a large minority with distinct political preferences, Black residents went unrepresented in City Council elections.
Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act prohibits states and cities like Pleasant Grove from using any practice or procedure which results in an abridgment of the right to vote on account of race. A plaintiff who is a member of an identifiable racial group can prove a Section 2 violation by showing that the election process in their jurisdiction results in less opportunity for members of the plaintiff’s racial group to elect representatives of their choice than other members of the electorate enjoy. However, the Supreme Court has limited who has standing to bring a Section 2 claim. A Section 2 plaintiff’s minority group must be sufficiently large and compact such that it could constitute a majority in a single district (if a hypothetical districting system was in place); the minority group must be politically cohesive, meaning it consistently votes as a bloc; and finally, a majority of the electorate must also vote as a cohesive bloc such that it consistently defeats the minority group’s preferred candidates. Pleasant Grove’s Black population increased in number from 14% in the year 2000 to about 40% by 2010. Because Pleasant Grove has a five-member City Council, Black residents were very likely sufficiently numerous by 2010 to have standing for a Section 2 claim.
Litigation under the Voting Rights Act has resulted in most Alabama jurisdictions moving away from “at-large” electoral districts. However, because Pleasant Grove never had a minority group large enough to meet the Supreme Court’s standing requirement for a Section 2 violation, its at-large method survived. The new “cumulative” method implemented as a result of the settlement between Pleasant Grove and the NAACP has made a dramatic and immediate difference to the City Council. Not only have the first-ever Black candidates been elected, three out of five total members are Black. This result is much closer to proportionate representation of constituent interests on Pleasant Grove’s City Council; a result many consider ideal. The coming years will tell whether the cumulative voting method continues to abide by the Voting Rights Act.