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Criminal Justice & Legal System

Accused of violating Voting Rights Act by US Justice Dept., Eastpointe changes voting procedures

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Monique Owens
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Monique Owens (right) with campaign staff member

The Eastpointe City Council approved a settlement Monday in a discrimination lawsuit from the U.S. Justice Department. 

The city will be the first in Michigan to implement a ranked choice voting system, in which voters designate their top preference among candidates running for office, along with their second and third choices. The decree only applies to city council races.

Eastpointe will also begin voter education programs, and will begin offering no-excuse absentee ballots in an effort to increase voter turnout.

Original story: February 23, 2017

Detroit police officer Monique Owens has great memories of Eastpointe from when she was a kid growing up in Detroit. 

“We used to go Eastland Mall when I was little,” she reminisces, “and we used to go to the Hostess Bakery right here in Eastpointe, and it was just - it was just a happy city. 

And I was like, when I grow up, I'm gonna live there.”

And so she did.  She, her husband and her twin girls moved to Eastpointe about five years ago, attracted by its promise of good schools and low crime rates.

But by then, it wasn't the warm and friendly place she remembered. 

"People aren't looking out for each other like they used to any more. I want to bring some of that old tradition back."

“Neighbors aren't neighbors anymore,” says Owens.  “People aren't looking out for each other like they used to any more.  I want to bring some of that old tradition back.”

So Owens decided to do something about it.  When an Eastpointe city council member died in office, she applied to finish his term, even though Eastpointe has never had an African American in any elected office. 

The city council chose a white candidate. 

Undeterred, Owens ran for the seat in the next election.  She figured her experience as a police officer would help her address crime as an elected leader.  She had ideas for rebuilding a sense of community, like neighborhood watch clubs and bloc clubs, and more family-oriented community events.

At first, Owens's two campaign managers, both white, were enthusiastic.  They thought Eastpointe was ready for a change.

“And then as we start to get more into the campaign, they felt like, I didn't have a chance,” she says.

At-large council seats keep minority candidates from winning elections

Here's why.  Some cities elect council members by district or ward.  Each ward elects someone to the council, which gives people from all parts of the city a say in government.

But in Eastpointe, every council seat gets voted on city-wide.

Since the city is about two-thirds white, whites can vote as a bloc to dilute minority votes.

"It's okay, we'll let you live here, but we're not going to let you run the city of Eastpointe." Monique Owens

And that's what happened to Owens.  She received 578 votes; the white candidate, who ran as an incumbent by virtue of being appointed to finish a term, received 1,394 votes.    

To add to the sting, a council member stepped down a month after the election.  Owens again applied, and again the council chose a white candidate.  She only half-jokes, “It's okay, we'll let you live here, but we’re not going to let you run the city of Eastpointe.”

U.S. Justice Department sues Eastpointe

Owens experience is not unique.

No black person has ever won a contested election for Eastpointe City Council, the school board, or a legislative district that includes the city of Eastpointe.

Owens supports the lawsuit filed by U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade.  It alleges violations of the Voting Rights Act, and seeks to compel Eastpointe to create at least one ward comprised of more than 50% black residents.

McQuade says just look at what happened when Detroit added wards. 

“We now see all corners of the city represented, including southwest Detroit, a primarily Hispanic community, which is now able to elect a candidate of its choice,” says McQuade.

The lawsuit does not list individual plaintiffs, although Justice employees interviewed Michelle Owens and other African American candidates prior to filing.

The lawsuit also alleges a long history of racial discrimination in education, housing, and public employment in Eastpointe. 

City council mulling what to do in response

City Manager Steve Duchane says the Justice Department is bullying a small city that doesn’t have the ability to fight the resources of the federal government.

He calls the allegations of the city having a history of racial discrimination “virtually slanderous.”

Duchane says Eastpointe has gone from about 4% African American to more than a third African American in a very short period of time.  Eventually, he says, Eastpointe will have a black person on council.

"What's the rush?" he asks. 

Duchane also says no one has complained to him about the lack of African Americans in city government. 

“I receive concerns about filling potholes,” says Duchane.  “About management of the streets, parks, things that you always get.  There's really no color when it comes to public services.”

Duchane says the council supports diversity in principle.  

But primarily for cost reasons, the city may have to give the Justice Department what it wants.

If the city is changing its demographics, should city government do the same?

Serina Pinkston was upset when told what Duchane said.  Pinkston is African American and in 2015,  she too, ran unsuccessfully for city council. 

She sees unaddressed racial problems in Eastpointe, like police targeting blacks for jay walking and other crimes. There’s only one African American on the Eastpointe police department.  Of the city's 104 employees, only 7 are African American.

“You're telling me that he (Duchane) doesn't see it as being a problem.  That's because he's of the majority,” Pinkston declares. “So of course it's not a problem to him.  He's not that one on the other side of the fence wanting to be a part and have some effect on the city that you reside in.”

The city plans to file its response to the lawsuit in early March. 

U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade says if the council doesn't agree to create a majority black ward before the next election in November, the case will go to trial. 

 

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