The small Detroit suburb of Eastpointe is looking for public input as it stares down a potential lawsuit.
The U.S. Justice Department warned the city last month that the way it chooses city council members violates the Voting Rights Act.
The government says voting for council members at-large denies the city’s growing black community a voice in government.
Eastpointe’s population is approximately 34% black, according to census data cited by the Justice Department in a letter to the city last month.
“Election returns establish that racially polarized voting patterns prevail in Eastpointe elections. In the most probative contests, black voters vote cohesively and white voters cast ballots sufficiently as a block to defeat the black voters’ candidates of choice,” Detroit U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade, and Civil Rights Division Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta wrote in the letter.
The city could avoid a lawsuit by agreeing to adopt a new, district-based voting system outlined by the government. But city officials want to hear from more residents first.
Eastpointe city manager Steve Duchane said that changing how the city votes would normally require changes to the city charter.
“A lot of things about this are unusual,” Duchane said. “Certainly for the city of Eastpointe, and in the state of Michigan. We are told by the Justice Department that we would be the first [city in Michigan where] they would…interpret the Voting Rights Act [this way]”.
Cassandra Ford is a black Eastpointe resident. She thinks the government’s position “has some merit,” and sparks an important discussion for the diversifying city.
“And really what I think is that, we don’t talk enough about race,” Ford said. “It’s not that people hate each other, [it’s that] they don’t understand each other. And we don’t talk enough about it.”
Another public hearing is scheduled on the issue on January 3. The government has said if the city doesn’t act to settle the matter through a consent judgment, the lawsuit will be filed January 9.