Congress approved the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to break down the kind of system that the city of Portland uses to this day. The federal legislation prohibits voting practices that discriminate against African Americans, Latinos or other racial and ethnic minorities. Most successful lawsuits filed under the civil rights law have targeted local governments that elect representatives citywide rather than by geographic district. Courts ruled that some Southern cities used at-large elections to water down the voting power of African Americans, who lived clustered in one part of town but formed a minority of the total electorate.
Portland, one of only two big cities in the United States to cling to at-large elections, is currently immune to that type of argument under federal law. African American residents probably are not concentrated enough to form a majority anywhere, even if the city were split into five council districts. But Oregon’s neighboring West Coast states have gone further than the federal government in protecting minority voting rights.
California’s own Voting Rights Act, adopted in 2002, doesn’t require that a majority of African Americans or Latinos live within a geographically confined area in order for minority voters to establish systemic problems that undercut their rights.