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NAACP Legal Firm Criticizes Columbus Council Elections For 'Discriminatory Effect'

Columbus City Council

Columbus government elections are facing fresh criticism, with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, or LDF, arguing that City Council elections have had a "racially discriminatory effect."

In a letter to council president Zach Klein, LDF senior counsel Leah Aden argued the city’s election methods weakens the voting strength of Columbus’s black community and possibly violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

David Harewood, campaign director for the Columbus-based advocacy group Everyday People for Positive Change, says their goal is to have council members elected by individual district instead of elected “at-large” in citywide votes.

“We’re saying that 'at-large' has hurt significant portions of the city by not having adequate representation in the places they need it most,” Harewood says.

Harewood says that though Columbus has had black members of City Council, all of them were originally appointed to fill vacated seats, instead of being voted in by the community. In subsequent elections, those candidates have been able to run as incumbents - including in November's races.

Issue 1, a ballot issue that would create district-based elections, was defeated by a large margin in August 2016. Columbus Council’s charter review committee, formed by Mayor Andrew Ginther and member Shannon Hardin after that election, recommended its own compromise system to reform the government.

The committee’s proposal would add two additional council members – for a total of nine – but elect all members at-large. After a number of public hearings this summer, the committee tabled their plan after residents criticized the proposal’s structure and lack of campaign finance reform.

"While this proposed voting structure may create the perception that voters will have a representative chosen by a neighborhood community, the maintenance of the underlying at-large voting scheme for all members of the city council will likely continue to unfailingly diminish the voices of Black voters in Columbus,” said the LDF in their letter.

Harewood says they’ll submit another petition in January, hoping to be on the ballot once again this May. 

Clare Roth was former All Things Considered Host for 89.7 NPR News. She joined WOSU in February of 2017. After attending the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, she returned to her native Iowa as a producer for Iowa Public Radio.