Eastpointe agrees to settle black voting rights case

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News
City Attorney Robert Ihrie and City Councilmember Monique Owens discuss a settlement in a federal lawsuit over the rights of black voters Tuesday after a special meeting.

Eastpointe — The City Council on Tuesday announced a settlement in a federal lawsuit over the rights of black voters that will impact how residents go to the polls starting this fall.

Through a four-year consent decree, the Macomb County community is slated to become the first in the state to officially implement “ranked choice” voting in municipal elections. That means for two city election cycles, voters rank candidates on the ballot in order of their preference. The mayor will continue to be elected citywide.

Council members unanimously approved the measure after a closed-door session, resolving the complaint the United States Department of Justice filed in 2017. The government alleged no African-American resident had ever won office for council, school board or legislative district in Eastpointe, despite blacks making up about one-third of its electorate.

City attorney Robert Ihrie said federal officials acknowledge that the new voting method “will not necessarily resolve all problems, but it will enhance the ability of minorities to have a minority elected.”

The government had alleged electing council members through citywide popular vote, rather than by district, is racially discriminatory and violates the Voting Rights Act.

“This agreement reflects the Department’s resolute commitment to vigorous enforcement of the Voting Rights Act to protect the right to vote in all elections,” said Eric Dreiband, assistant Attorney General for the DOJ Civil Rights Division, in a statement. “We are pleased that the City of Eastpointe has worked cooperatively with the Department to adopt a solution that safeguards the right to vote.”

Eastpointe had sought to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing in part that an African American, Monique Owens, was elected to the council in 2017, after the federal complaint.

But U.S. District Judge Terrence Berg noted there was only one white candidate for two open seats in that election. The judge said the election of a black candidate was a “foregone conclusion.”

In March, Berg said the case would head to trial or be settled. Lawyers on both sides have been holding settlement discussions.

Ihrie noted the deal announced Tuesday resulted from “long hours” of talks and the ranked-choice voting system was among several the government supported.

The city was not in favor of voting by district, he said, “because over the past 20 years or so … the demographics of the population of the city of Eastpointe have changed and the city has done its very, very best to make sure that that has been an accommodative change. ... The council felt that to have districts … would pretty much ruin all of those efforts.”

The government is working with the city, state and county officials to guarantee the voting system will be functioning before the November election. It is not yet clear how much compliance with the agreement, which needs court approval, could cost, Ihrie said.

The city is also planning major voter education initiatives to prepare residents. 

“Educating our community will … move us forward in that process,” Owens said at a press conference after the special session.

In four years, the city can review whether to return to its former voting method, Mayor Suzanne Pixley said Tuesday.

Some residents wonder whether the new voting could still affect representation.

“It’s a possibility until we really know how it’s going to work,” said Tonia Gladney, who has lived in the city for 11 years and is considering running for a city role. “I have a lot of questions, a lot of concerns.”

Others say it's too early to tell what impact the measure could have.

"We’ll just have to want to see how it works," said Shirley Peak, a resident since 1949. "This will be quite a change for voting." 

Associated Press contributed