Ohio City Investigated for Voting Discrimination

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The Justice Department is planning to file a voting rights suit against a city in Ohio. The last time the department brought a lawsuit alleging a pattern of discrimination against black voters was in 2001.


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne. The Justice Department is preparing to bring a lawsuit on behalf of black voters in one Ohio community. NPR has learned that the Justice Department believes local election policies discriminate against black voters in Euclid, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland. The move would mark the first time in five years since that the department has filed a lawsuit on behalf of black voters, and critics find it suspicious that the action comes just as a powerful Senate committee prepares to hold hearings on the department's civil rights division.

NPR's Ari Shapiro reports.

ARI SHAPIRO reporting:

Last fall, when Wan Kim came before the Senate Judiciary Committee for confirmation hearings to lead the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, Democratic Senator Dick Durbin was frank.

Senator DICK DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): The Bush Administration has not brought a single voting rights lawsuit alleging racial discrimination against African Americans. I find this disturbing.

SHAPIRO: Committee members' concerns has not diminished since then. There have been reports that political appointees overruled the unanimous recommendations of career attorneys on controversial cases. Career attorneys have left, complaining that the division isn't doing enough to enforce civil rights. And now the Judiciary Committee is preparing to call Assistant Attorney General Kim back to the Hill for oversight hearings.

Former Justice Department Attorney Jon Greenbaum says that means one thing.

Mr. JON GREENBAUM (Former Justice Department Attorney): When the voting section and the civil rights division know that oversight hearings are coming, we end up seeing action being taken on matters.

SHAPIRO: The Civil Rights Division sent a letter to Euclid, Ohio, accusing the city of discrimination against black voters.

Mr. GREENBAUM: This particular matter in Euclid has been hanging around in the voting section, going back to 2003.

SHAPIRO: The Justice Department hasn't filed a case on behalf of African-American voters since 2001, and that case was started under the previous administration. The Civil Rights Division did bring its first-ever suit alleging black discrimination against white voters. That was in Mississippi.

David Becker is an election consultant who used to work in the Civil Rights Division's voting section. He says the Ohio case stands out.

Mr. DAVID BECKER (Election Consultant, Civil Rights Division Voting Section, Justice Department): I think the timing is a little suspicious, considering the fact that Senate oversight hearings for the Civil Rights Division are coming up.

SHAPIRO: The hearings were originally scheduled for April 4th but were postponed yesterday for unrelated reasons. Euclid's mayor is Democrat Bill Cervenik. His town is a third black, but there's never been an African American on the city council.

Mayor BILL CERVENIK (Democrat, Ohio): I would certainly listen to any suggestions as to how to encourage a more diverse council. During my campaign in 2003, I made it very clear that it's important that we work to get African-American representation on council.

SHAPIRO: That said...

Mayor CERVENIK: If we're being used to cover somebody's mistakes or lack of action, then they're going to have a very upset mayor from northeastern Ohio on their hands.

SHAPIRO: Critics say it's not that this case is without merit, it's that this and other cases that continue to sit on the shelf should have been filed years ago.

Stanley Miller is executive director of the NAACP's office in Cleveland, which borders Euclid. He says the discrimination in Euclid has emerged gradually.

Mr. STANLEY MILLER (Executive Director, NAACP, Cleveland, Ohio): A number of whites have left Cleveland and moved to the suburbs. Now, a number of African Americans are following the same route into the suburbs. And I do believe that there are a number of people that they don't want to live with African Americans. That's real. And at some point, this community needs to face the fact that there is some racism in this community.

SHAPIRO: The Justice Department doesn't accuse the people in Euclid of specific racist acts. They allege dilution of the black vote. That means the city's voting system is set up so that white people can legitimately win every local office, even if the city has a substantial black minority.

Justice Department Spokesman Eric Holland said in a statement that the Bush Administration has a strong record of enforcing the voting rights of all Americans. He noted that this Justice Department has filed more lawsuits alleging voting discrimination on the basis of language than in the entire prior history of the act combined. And he reiterated that the administration supports reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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