Eric Calhoun, plaintiff in the Legal Defense Fund lawsuit, photographed at his home in Pleasant Grove.

Eric Calhoun, the plaintiff in the Legal Defense Fund lawsuit, at his home in Pleasant Grove. the at-large system has created a dynamic where people don’t feel represented by their city council members Photograph: Johnathon Kelso/The Guardian

The discriminatory voting system in Pleasant Grove, Alabama, allowed white people to win every city council seat. Now residents are fighting back

Everyone in Pleasant Grove, Alabama, seems to know that if you really want to find out what the city council is working on, you have to get to city hall an hour early for the pre-council meeting.

But one Monday in February, two residents, La-Tanya Dunham and Robert Sellers, arrived at about 6pm, only to find the room already packed with about a dozen people discussing pay raises, Little League sign-ups and street lights.

Other than Dunham and Sellers, everyone in the room was white.

While it may have been an inadvertent scheduling mix-up, Dunham said it was symptomatic of a broader problem. The majority-black city has never elected an African American person to be its mayor or to serve on its five-person city council. Black candidates have run for office, and lost. That’s not an accident, civil rights advocates say: Pleasant Grove’s election system is discriminatory, making it almost impossible for African Americans to win seats.

“It’s like Pleasant Grove is stuck in a bubble,” said Dunham, 46, who moved to the city in 2005. “It’s like we’re stuck in a period – ‘This is how it used to be and we can’t go past that.’”

Pleasant Grove has been using a voting system that has historically disadvantaged African Americans by allowing powerful blocs – in this case, of white residents – to vote en masse for their candidate of choice and win every seat.

It’s a system Alabama municipalities instituted over a century ago to dilute the impact of African American voters on local elections, in conjunction with other discriminatory rules, to allow white majorities to maintain their political influence in cities across the state. Seats on the council are not allotted by district; instead the whole electorate votes for all members.

“It provided hegemony for white supremacy,” said Peyton McCrary, a historian who has closely studied at-large elections in Alabama. “It was totally successful.”(Sam Levine)

posted by The non-Conformist