For Maria Hernandez, the chief problem in Brentwood, her Long Island hometown, has always been the streets and their state of disrepair. For Ana Flores, it was the time town officials dumped tons of construction debris into one of Brentwood’s parks. Others in the hamlet, which sits within the town of Islip, mentioned different troubles — traffic lights don’t work, trash pickups are slow, schools are underfunded — but all of them, they say, have the same root cause: The way that Islip, a mostly white community, elects its local leaders has diluted the power of Latino residents, effectively robbing them of their vote. “If you come to Brentwood, you would notice that our town looks very different from the other towns in this municipality,” said Ms. Hernandez, 53, who moved to Brentwood from El Salvador nearly 20 years ago. “There’s so much lack of interest from the town board that we feel like an island. We are like a ghost town.”
On Monday, however, with the help of two community groups, Ms. Hernandez and three other Latino residents of Brentwood filed suit against the town, claiming that Islip’s electoral system, in which candidates seek votes townwide instead of in specific districts, has deprived them of political representation. The lawsuit, filed in Federal District Court in Brooklyn, seeks to replace this so-called at-large system with a district system, a move that could give Latino candidates a better chance of being elected from largely Latino areas.
At the heart of the suit is the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, which lawyers in the 1990s used successfully to scrap discriminatory at-large systems in the nearby Long Island town of Hempstead and in New Rochelle in Westchester County. In 2006, the federal government sued the village of Port Chester, N.Y., on similar grounds, and a judge eventually ruled that the village’s at-large system affected the “rights of Hispanics to participate in the political process.”