This month’s local and state elections brought the usual dismal news about voter turnout: Fewer than one in four New Yorkers went to the polls. In New Jersey, less than 40 percent did. Virginia had its highest turnout in 20 years and still didn’t clear 50 percent. Even in presidential elections, four in 10 voters stay home. Low turnout rates are partly a reflection of human nature: Voting requires us to suspend logic, since one ballot rarely decides an election, and believe in the power of collective action. That belief is being tested by an increasingly individualistic society, where we are more isolated from our neighbors and less connected to civic organizations. But it’s now also being tested by a most unlikely foe: voting-rights advocates.
Last week, the New York Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit alleging that school board elections in my hometown of Ramapo, 25 miles north of Manhattan, violate the Voting Rights Act. The East Ramapo school district’s black and Hispanic residents, many of them poor, account for nearly 40 percent of its voting-age citizens but hold only one of nine seats on the school board, which is elected at-large (in which voters cast ballots for all seats). The suit seeks to replace the at-large board with one elected from wards in order to increase minority representation.
This would seem to be exactly the type of voting-rights challenge that has been waged successfully around the country. But it’s not — and as the U.S. becomes more diverse, it may be a harbinger of things to come.