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Port Chester Appeals Federal Voting Rights Ruling

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Voting machine - Port Chester, NY - File / Photo: Village of Port Chester

Voting machine – Port Chester, NY – File / Photo: Village of Port Chester

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WHITE PLAINS, NY (AP / WCBS 880) - A village outside New York City has decided to appeal a federal court ruling that led to an unusual voting system and the election of its first Hispanic trustee.

The Port Chester board of trustees voted 4-2 Tuesday night to hire a law firm to appeal a finding that local elections were unfair to Hispanics.

The board authorized up to $225,000 in taxpayer funds for the appeal, an amount that would grow if the case were retried. The village spent about $1.2 million on the original case.

“We are confident we have a powerful appeal,” village spokesman Aldo Vitagliano said Wednesday. He said a recent Supreme Court case has bolstered Port Chester’s contention that white support for Hispanic candidates in previous elections was strong enough to satisfy the federal Voting Rights Act.

WCBS 880′s Catherine Cioffi reports

“In Port Chester, Hispanic-preferred candidates enjoy the substantial support of non-Hispanics crossing over to vote for them,” Vitagliano told WCBS 880 reporter Catherine Cioffi. “I think the system works, okay. I think the system has worked.”

In a letter to the Journal News of White Plains earlier this month, trustee Joseph Kenner said an appeal could “remove the shameful and unwarranted stigma of the judge’s ruling.”

The Department of Justice, which brought the case, had no comment, said spokesman Herb Hadad.

Several residents at the Tuesday night meeting objected to spending more on the lawsuit.

Randolph McLaughlin, who represented a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said Wednesday that the village has “zero chance to succeed.”

“They’re throwing good money after bad,” he said. “This is a problem that has been solved. This should have been a new day for Port Chester and instead they’re trying to push these Latinos out.”

In January 2008, Judge Stephen Robinson ruled that Port Chester’s existing at-large system violated the Voting Rights Act, which protects minorities’ constitutional right to equal protection under the law.

Robinson found that although the population of 28,000 was about half Hispanic, the system prevented Hispanics from getting a representative on the six-trustee board. Most voters were white, and white candidates always won.

No Hispanic had ever been elected trustee or mayor in the village, which is 25 miles northeast of New York City.

In 2009, after asking both sides for ideas on how to remedy the problem, the judge imposed cumulative voting, which was not being used anywhere else in New York.

With all six trustee seats up for election, each voter was given six votes to cast. A voter could give all six to one candidate or spread votes among as many as six candidates.

The 2010 election, which followed a major voter education program, put Luis Marino, the first Hispanic trustee, into office.

Marino and Mayor Dennis Pilla voted against the appeal.

Jerry Goldfeder, an election lawyer who teaches at Fordham Law School, said the appeal would have to show that cumulative voting did not work well “and I don’t think they will be able to do that.” He noted that Robinson had crafted the cumulative voting remedy “with the help of all the parties.”

(TM and Copyright 2011 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2011 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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