Pleasant Grove, Alabama, is a majority-Black city yet it is nearly impossible for Black candidates to get elected here. Why? The way the city’s voting system is set up.
“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,” The Guardian reported.
Why? Because Pleasant Grove has been using a voting system that has historically disadvantaged African Americans by permitting powerful blocs – aka white residents – to vote en masse for their candidate of choice and win every seat. The system is more than a century old. And it was initially started to lessen the impact of African-American voters on local elections. It was set in place to allow white majorities to maintain their political influence in cities across the state. And it is still doing so today.
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“It provided hegemony for white supremacy,” said Peyton McCrary, a historian who has closely studied at-large elections in Alabama. “It was totally successful.”
Finally, residents of Pleasant Grove decided they’d had enough. African Americans now make up about 60 percent of the population, and about 53 percent of registered voters are Black.
“In 2014, Priscilla McWilliams, a short, no-nonsense woman who has lived in the city since the early 2000s, was appointed by the other city council members to a vacant seat on the body, making her the first black person to ever hold office in the city. Residents said she was well respected and worked hard during her two years on the council, pushing the city to better engage with residents and urging them to bring in new businesses,” The Guardian reported.
Then while campaigning two years ago to keep her seat, McWilliams was surprised at the reception she received.
“The implication was ‘Oh well, she’s Black. She’s not from here, she didn’t grow up here, she doesn’t know anything about us,’” said McWilliams, a retiree who previously worked at a non-profit.
She lost the election by about 600 votes to a white opponent.
Then there is Yolanda Yvette Lawson, who has lived in Pleasant Grove for 20 years. When she campaigned for city council in 2016 she faced the same opposition that McWilliams did. “A lot of what I heard from the white voters was: ‘The Blacks want to come in, get elected, and spend all our money,’” she said. “It’s hard to believe that it’s 2020 and we’re having this conversation.” Lawson lost her race as well.
Finally, in 2018, two Black residents, backed by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF), filed a federal lawsuit to challenge the city’s voting system.
“In the lawsuit, LDF lawyers showed data to prove the at-large system created five head-to-head contests in which African-American voters were never able to elect their preferred candidate. They drew maps to show that if the city had used a districting system instead, African-American residents would have a majority of voters in three districts,” The Guardian reported.
According to lawyers, the current system violates the Voting Rights Act.
“Last fall, Pleasant Grove, Calhoun, and the other plaintiffs agreed to settle the case. The city will adopt a new process called cumulative voting, under which each resident gets five votes to allocate however they want among the candidates. Candidates will no longer have to run for a specific seat on the council, and the five top vote-getters in the election will be the winners,” The Guardian reported.
The new system will give African Americans more power to elect the candidate of their choice.