New Yorkers Are Using This New Law For Better Representation

Map of New York over blue background. Overlaying the map are letters NYVRA in bold white lettering. Four areas of the map are shaded with light blue shading and inside each shaded area is a red pin marking a spot on the map. In the background there are partial maps of Nassau County, Cheektowaga, and Newburgh New York.

In a town just north of New York City, a person of color has never been elected to the local board. On Long Island, the Nassau County Legislature has never had a Latino or Asian member and has just one Black legislator. In Newburgh, a town located just 60 miles north of New York City, a person of color has not been elected to the town board. In the opening months of 2024, voters in the Empire State are utilizing the recently enacted New York Voting Rights Act (NYVRA) in hopes of remedying discrimination across the state. 

Signed into law by New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) in June 2022, the NYVRA puts a specific emphasis on ensuring minority voters are well represented and allows voters to challenge election practices that cause voter suppression, vote dilution, voter intimidation and more. 

California was the first state to pass a state-level voting rights act in 2002. Illinois followed suit in 2011. After the U.S. Supreme Court dismantled the federal Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder in 2013, state level voting rights acts have been crucial in protecting minority voters. Washington, Oregon, Virginia and Connecticut each passed their own state level VRAs in 2018, 2019, 2021 and 2023 respectively. In 2022, New York joined the pack as the sixth state to pass one, which voters have started testing out this year. 

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The NYVRA is a critical piece of legislation designed to protect voters. 

Using its federal counterpart as inspiration, New York’s 2022 voting rights law establishes a “pre-clearance” regime that requires certain towns, counties and cities with histories of discriminatory voting practices to get approval from the New York attorney general’s Civil Rights Bureau before new voting changes go into effect. In addition, the law creates what is known as a private right of action, which allows individual voters to file lawsuits challenging perceived violations of the law. A separate part of the law — which requires local jurisdictions to provide language assistance and translated voting materials in order to improve access to voters with limited English proficiency — will take effect in 2025.

The law explicitly bans vote dilution and prohibits local boards from using electoral methods that have the effect of “impairing the ability of members of a protected class to elect candidates of their choice or influence the outcome of elections.” Under the NYVRA, racial and language minority voters are considered to be part of a protected class.  

This provision stands to have large implications for how voters are represented at the local level. 

The NYVRA outlines a specific procedure for perceived violations.

If a voter thinks their village, town or county is violating the NYVRA, they must send a notification letter to the clerk or governing body, which then has 50 days to respond. 

Within 50 days, local governments must:

  • Declare their intent to enact and implement a remedy for the NYVRA violation, 
  • State the steps they will take to facilitate approving and implementing the remedy and
  • Make clear their schedule for enacting and implementing the remedy.  

If the local government does not respond within 50 days or if the town responds, but does not enact a remedy within 90 days, the voter can then file a lawsuit. 

Across New York, voters are now utilizing the new law to ask for better from their local representatives. 

Hispanic voters in Mount Pleasant, New York are asking for their town board to better represent them. 

In Mount Pleasant, a town located in the Westchester County suburbs of New York City, Hispanic residents comprise about 19% of the town’s population. Despite this, according to voters’ recent lawsuit, every person ever elected to the Mount Pleasant Town Board has been white. 

In January, five Hispanic voters filed the first ever lawsuit under the NYVRA challenging the town’s at-large system for electing members to its local governing body. According to the complaint, experts hired by the town determined that the town is violating the NYVRA by disenfranchising Hispanic voters. The plaintiffs argue that the NYVRA requires the at-large system to be changed to ensure Hispanic voters are adequately represented in the electoral process. 

The lawsuit highlights how the town’s Hispanic voters feel left behind by the board’s current members: 

[T]he Town routinely neglects the interests of the Hispanic community, whose pleas fall on deaf ears. For example, the current Town Board opposes affordable housing projects, which are overwhelmingly popular among Hispanics, but are disfavored by the white majority. The Town has also recently declared a state of emergency aimed at preventing asylum seekers from residing in the Town, even though the Hispanic community in Mount Pleasant would be opposed to doing so.

Citing a long history of discrimination, Long Island voters are now calling for a fair map for their local Legislature. 

Just one month after the first ever NYVRA lawsuit was filed, New York Communities for Change — a nonprofit community organization — and four Latino voters filed a lawsuit challenging the Nassau County Legislature’s map. Members of the Nassau County Legislature — which is tasked with drafting local rules, laws and ordinances as well as passing the county’s budget — can have a real impact on voters’ daily lives. 

As the complaint emphasizes, Black, Latino and Asian residents constitute almost one-half of Nassau County’s total population and over one-third of its eligible voters, but the current map provides only four districts out of 19 where voters of color constitute a majority. 

Candidates of color are seldom elected in Nassau County. According to the lawsuit, there are no Latino representatives in the Legislature, an Asian resident has never been elected to the Legislature and “No Black, Latino, or Asian candidate has ever been elected to the office of County Executive, County Comptroller, County Clerk, or District Attorney in Nassau County.”  

Racial discrimination is both an issue of the past and the present in the county. As the complaint emphasizes, “Past discrimination has accumulated over time to make Nassau County the most

segregated county in its population class in the United States today. In fact, Nassau County school districts are now even more segregated than they were 40 years ago.” 

The new lawsuit illustrates the county’s long history of discrimination in voting, explaining that the county had a literacy test for voting from 1922-1969 and that until 1995, a voter purge law in the state “purged 56% more voters in predominantly minority election districts than in predominantly white districts.” 

Due to this history and other factors such as the existence of racially polarized voting and the inability of voters of color to elect their candidates of choice, the plaintiffs argue that the county legislature’s map violates the NYVRA and “unnecessarily ‘cracks’ and ‘packs’ Nassau County’s communities of color,” which inhibits their ability to have a representative government. The plaintiffs ask for a map where voters of color should have the opportunity to elect their candidate of choice in six districts, not four. 

A Black voter in Cheektowaga fights for better representation on his town board.

In Western New York, in the second largest suburb of Buffalo, former town board candidate Kenneth Young says it’s time for the town to adopt electoral districts instead of its current at-large system. Young argues in a new lawsuit that the six-member body that governs the Town of Cheektowaga has not elected Black voters’ preferred candidates in multiple races, but would have if the town adopted a districting system. 

As the complaint illustrates, the northwest portion of Cheektowaga has a majority-Black population, while the rest of the town has a majority-white population. Because of this, the town has racially polarized voting, where white and Black Cheektowaga residents support different candidates in state and local elections. 

Young is asking the court to order Cheektowaga to enact a map of six single-member districts for all future town board elections.

With current leadership failing to prioritize their needs, Black and Hispanic voters ask for a new electoral system. 

On the other side of the state, and 60 miles north of New York City, Black and Hispanic voters filed a new lawsuit challenging the at-large system for electing members to the Newburgh Town Board. The plaintiffs allege that the town’s five-member legislative and policy making body  dilutes the political power of Black and Hispanic voters, in violation of the NYVRA.

According to their lawsuit, Black and Hispanic residents comprise 25% and 15% of the town’s population, respectively. Despite this, every person elected to the board has been white.   Their lawsuit argues that the town’s unanimously white board is not a coincidence, but rather a byproduct of the town’s electoral system. The lawsuit highlights the town’s treatment of asylum seekers and its decision to expand a harmful power plant against Black and Hispanic voters’ wishes as examples of how the town’s leadership does not adequately represent the town.

In this case, voters ask the court to block the use of the at-large system in future town board elections and order Newburgh to implement a new electoral method in time for the town’s 2025 elections.

Electoral systems can have a huge impact on how voters are represented, now voters are asking their local communities for better. 

These lawsuits across the Empire State are the inaugural tests of New York’s new law aimed at improving minority representation and voting power throughout the state. At the heart of each of these lawsuits, voters are asking for their voices to be heard often in cases where they previously have not been. 

Aba Tieku contributed research to this story.