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The News Tribune (N.J.)
December 8, 1991



CARTERET MINORITIES: VOTERS WITHOUT POWER

CARTERET, N.J.
by voting district

Racial composition
 Less than 10% minorities
 11% to 20% minorities
 21% to 40% minorities
  Over 80% minorities

Elected officials' homes
Home of mayor or council member
Home of Board of Education member

SOURCE: U.S. Census
JEFFERY COHEN / The News Tribune

Population data in table form



By JOSHUA TANZER

   Carteret's election system may violate federal law because it shuts Hispanics and blacks out of government.

   Forty percent of the borough's 2,760 Hispanics and 75 percent of the borough's 1,020 blacks live in the Chrome section of town, but have been powerless to elect representatives to borough government.

   The pattern of disenfranchisement may generate the first suit in New Jersey to challenge the legality of at-large voting.

   Minorities can be outvoted by the white majority under Carteret's at-large form of government. The federal Voting Rights Act has been used to overturn similar election schemes in numerous towns with racial distribution, especially in the South.

  
SIDEBARS

Chrome residents live with unfulfilled promises.
Which system gives minorities the most influence?


   The borough's attorney says he does not believe Carteret violates the act, but one civil rights group is collecting evidence for a possible court challenge.

   Towns found in violation of the act have been ordered to change to a system of single-member wards when the minority can show that it is geographically concentrated and could elect its own representatives if it had its own ward or wards.

   In Carteret, the Chrome section could qualify as such a ward.

   The neighborhood, comprising Voting Districts 3 and 4, has 13 percent of the borough's total population, but hardly participates in the political life of the town.

   None of Carteret's 16 elected officials live in Chrome. By contrast, 15 of the 16 officials live in voting districts with minority populations of 20 percent or less.    The population in Chrome is more than 80 percent minorities, while the rest of the town is nearly 85 percent white.

   None of the town's elected officials are black or Hispanic. Leaders in those communities have complained over the last few years that the government has at times acted against their interests in the areas of borough personnel, police hiring, school programs, housing, and economic development.

   The New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union is collecting data in preparation for a possible challenge to the Carteret election system.

   Legal Director Doborah Ellis said she was talking to a Carteret resident earlier this year when she noticed a similarity between the Carteret system and at-large systems she had seen invalidated when she worked for the ACLU in Alabama.

   Ellis said she has sent information on Carteret to lawyers in the ACLU's southern regional office in Atlanta, who have more experience in voting rights.

   "I haven't done one like this before, and there haven't been many done in Northern cities."


ACLU eyes lawsuit

   If the evidence points to a violation in Carteret, the ACLU plans to seek a charter revision or file suit in court, Ellis said.

   "Once you get your evidence together, it's a pretty straightforward lawsuit," she said.

   Neil Bradley, associate director of the ACLU's southern regional office, said that since the 1982 amendments to the Voting Rights Act, "literally hundreds" of federal court opinions have forced municipalities to abolish at-large voting for all elected bodies, including town councils and boards of education.

   Though they did not comment specifically on the Carteret case, Ellis, Bradley, and several other legal authorities with experience in voting rights explained how the law applies to at-large systems.

   Because of a 1982 amendment to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a minority group making a challenge does not have to show that the electoral system is intentionally biased, but only that it results in dilution of minority voting power.

   That difference is important in resolving discriminatory voting systems, said Deborah Karpatkin, a New York City lawyer who formerly worked with the New Jersey ACLU and was legal director of the organization 100 Percent Vote in New Jersey.

   "We are now in a society where discrimination tends to be by habit rather than by intent," Karpatkin said.

   "The imotional cost of these cases is not so heavy" when a lawsuit alleges bias in the voting results, she said. "You don't have to accuse somebody of racism."

   The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Voting Rights Act amendments in its 1986 decision Thornburg vs. Gingles. In that case, which has been the precedent for numerous voting-rights challenges, the court set up the following three-part test for invalidating an at-large system.


Making a case

   The minority group making a challenge must be able to show:    Advocates of a ward system could make a strong case that these conditions exist in Carteret.

   First, the minorities in Chrome would form a majority of a single-member ward.

   Under a six-member ward system, each council member would represent about 3,170 residents. The two voting districts that make up Chrome include 2,446 residents, according to the 1990 census. Of that population, 2,011 are minorities, which would be a clear majority of a voting ward.

   The population of Chrome, according to the census, is 45 percent Hispanic; 31 percent black, not including Hispanics; 18 percent white, not including Hispanics; and 5 percent of Asian and Pacific Island descent.

   The so-called Hill section of Carteret could make up another hypothetical ward with a significant minority of blacks and Hispanics. In that part of town, Voting Districts 1, 8, and 9 have a population of 3,038, with minorities numbering almost 1,000.


Chrome goes for Dems

   Though it has little political muscle to flex and is not well organized, the Chrome community is cohesive in its voting patterns. Chrome voters have been among the most consistent supporters of Democrats in local elections.

   Democrats received 55 percent of the votes cast in local races in the last election in both Districts 3 and 4, the fourth- and fifth-highest percentages in town. In the 1990 general election, District 3 cast 62 percent of its votes in local elections for Democrats, and District 4 cast 58 percent for Democrats, the two highest majorities in town.

   Finally, the question of racial bloc voting is the most complex.

   The clearest evidence of racial bloc voting comes from analysis of elections in which minorities were candidates. But that has almost never happened in Carteret. Longtime observers recall no black candidates and only one candidate of Puerto Rican descent in council elections -- and that candidate does not identify himself as a minority member.

   That candidate was Ron Rios, who served one term on the council from 1982 to 1984. Rios said that, although his parents came from Puerto Rico, he considers himself "a white American." He said he doesn't believe his ethnic heritage was a campaign issue or a consideration among voters.

   The ACLU's Bradley, who is reviewing the information on Carteret, said that a town can still be found in violation, even if no minority candidates have ever run for office.

   If towns with no history of minority candidates were immune from challenges, "that would be like the worst discriminatory system gets off," Bradley said.

   Bradley said that Southern towns without a history of black candidates have been successful in cases based on the Thornburg decision. He referred to a footnote in the Supreme Court's opinion: "Where a minority group has never been able to sponsor a candidate, courts must rely on other factors that tend to prove unequal access to the electoral process."

   The court called for a flexible approach, and outlined seven factors that could be evidence of a Voting Rights Act violation, including "the extent to which members of the minority group have been elected to public office in the jurisdiction."

   "The fact that there have been no candidates," Bradley explained, "is overwhelming evidence that the minorities are not operating in an open election system."


Voting patterns

   The ACLU's Ellis said it could be important to analyze Carteret voting patterns in county, state, or national races that included minority candidates.

   "You can, for example, look at how people in Carteret voted for Jesse Jackson when he was running" for president in the 1988 Democratic primary, Ellis said. "You see, that's what we're doing."

   In District 3, Jackson received 38 votes, or 58 percent; and in District 4, he received 58 votes, or 64 percent. Those were the only two districts in which he received more than 12 votes.

   In the eight districts whose populations are more than 90 percent white, Jackson received 8 percent of the vote.

   The only recent election that involved a black candidate was the 1988 Board of Education race.

   A black woman, Deola Nix, came in last out of seven candidates that year. Out of 1,429 people casting up to three votes each, Nix received 146 votes -- barely half the number of votes for her running mate, Ralph Antonello, who was second-to-last.

   The district-by-district vote for Nix cannot be calculated from records on file in the Board of Education office because the districts are grouped together according to which school building the votes were cast in. But her lowest percentages were in Districts 11, 12, 14, 15, 16, 17, and 19, which had a total black population of 16 in the census. Eight percent of voters in those districts cast votes for her.

   Her running mate, Antonello, received 21 percent of the vote in those districts, getting 134 votes to Nix's 52.

   Carteret Borough Attorney Robert Hedesh said he does not believe the Thornburg decision is relevant.

   "In terms of Carteret, this case does not apply at all," he said.

   First, Hedesh said, the borough's minority population is not geographically confined to Chrome. He noted the sizable minority population in the Hill section.

   Secondly, he said, to the extent that Chrome voters favor Democratic candidates, they were represented by Democratic council majorities for three years. Furthermore, he said, "the Republicans have probably appointed more minorities to boards than the Democrats have."

   Also, he said, Hispanics, blacks, East Indians, and other minorities cannot be considered a single political group. For example, Cubans are often strongly conservative.

   Hedesh said a complication could arise from the state statutes that govern municipal incorporation. "We are in a borough form of govenrment, and the borough form of government calls for at-large voting," he said.

   An authority on New Jersey municipal law said that's true, but the borough can still change its form of government.

   Michael Pane, a Hightstown lawyer who has written two volumes in the legal reference series "New Jersey Practice," said that municipalities can change their forms of government without changing what they call themselves. So a borough can go to a ward voting system but still remain a borough in name, he said.


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