Mt. Pleasant Grapples With Sleepy Hollow Voting Rights Charge
By Barrett Seaman–
The public seating area at a hearing held on Thursday, November 16 before the Mt. Pleasant Town Board was nearly full, which at local government meetings is generally a sign that constituents are riled up about something.
The “something” in this case was a challenge to the Town’s voting system, in which the four members of the governing Board, as well as the Town Supervisor, Clerk and Justice, are elected “at large,” meaning all voters in the Town, regardless of where they live, cast votes and the candidates with the most votes win.
Mt. Pleasant, with a population just under 45,000, is an agglomeration of communities, most of which are unincorporated “hamlets,” but it also includes two incorporated villages, Pleasantville and Sleepy Hollow (and a small piece of Briarcliff Manor).
Altogether, Mt. Pleasant’s population is culturally diverse, but that diversity is not evenly distributed. Rather it is concentrated in one village, Sleepy Hollow, where more than half the population of just under 11,000 identifies as Hispanic. Elsewhere in Mt. Pleasant, more than two-thirds of the voters, concentrated in Pleasantville, Hawthorne, Thornwood and Valhalla, are White. They tend to vote Republican while Sleepy Hollow voters tend to vote for Democrats.
In the letter to the Town Board sent this summer, Abrams Fensterman LLP, a law firm with close ties to the Democratic Party, alleged on behalf of five Sleepy Hollow residents that the Town’s at-large voting system inherently dilutes the voting power of the village’s predominantly Hispanic population and is therefore in violation of New York State’s year-old John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act.
The challenge represents the first test of the law, which is itself an expansion of the federal voting rights act. It says that such dilution constitutes discrimination against a protected class of voters, in this case Hispanics. The New York version of the law makes it easier for protected classes to challenge voting rules without having to sue. It also obliges the challenged governmental body to respond to the allegation, hold public hearings and, if warranted, come up with a remedy—or face a lawsuit.
Mt. Pleasant’s Board’s response to the letter so far has been by the book. It first passed a resolution in August commissioning a pair of studies to determine whether the Town’s at-large voting system is indeed discriminatory. To that end, the Council appointed two voting experts, Jeffrey Wice and Dr. Lisa Handley, to conduct such a study and report back within 30 days, after which, according to the law, the Council would be required to hold two public hearings on the matter.
That 30 days turned into two months, but when the two reports were delivered earlier this month, they supported the validity of the Sleepy Hollow case. The Wice report confirmed the relevance of the law to Sleepy Hollow and outlined the steps needed to address the inequity. Dr. Handley’s statistical analysis concluded that “Hispanic voters and Non-Hispanic White voters consistently support different candidates and the candidates supported by non-Hispanic White voters usually prevail in Mount Pleasant elections.”
“All six of the recent Mount Pleasant elections I analyzed were racially/ethnically polarized,” Dr. Hanley concluded, “with Hispanic and non-Hispanic voters consistently supporting different candidates. Of the candidates preferred by Hispanic voters only one prevailed in the six polarized contests.”
It was clear from the first speaker at the November 16th hearing that the challenge had stirred up a hornet’s nest of partisan resentment, in many ways a reflection of the current national divide. As such, it signaled that the meeting would be something other than a dispassionate exchange of ideas.
Calling the challenge “entirely a bluff,” Carlo Valente of Hawthorne wondered what disenfranchisement the Sleepy Hollow residents had actually suffered. “It’s probably a money grab, to put it coarsely,” he concluded. Other speakers would later echo the idea that the challenge was all about money, though no one articulated how exactly money was to be made.
Another charge was that the motivation is simple political power. Jim Russell, a local Republican district leader who had once run for Congress, told the Board, “We have to recognize this for exactly what it is, which is a ploy by the Democratic Party to gain power in New York State, starting with our town.” Russell, like other opponents of a change in the system, urged the Board to fight it, even if it meant spending taxpayers’ money. “There’s no better way to spend our tax dollars than to defend our traditional system,” he said.
Several speakers questioned whether the Hispanic community in Sleepy Hollow felt any affinity with the Town. John Fisher, president of a local homeowners association and an election worker, noting the low turnout in many local elections, suggested that resident in the two incorporated villages that have their own elected governments “do not realize what the town provides for them and thus don’t turn out for elections.”
To that point, former State Assemblyman Tom Abinanti noted that the one time a candidate favored by Sleepy Hollow voters won a seat on the Board was in an even-numbered year when higher offices, including the Governor’s, were at stake. He recommended that the Board consider abandoning its off-year election tradition to improve voter turnout, a byproduct of which would likely be improved odds for candidates supported by Sleepy Hollow voters. (A bill that would shift all town and county elections in the state to even years is currently on Governor Hochul’s desk.)
To be sure, the thread connecting the Town to its incorporated villages is thin. Sleepy Hollow has its own mayor, village board, police, fire, recreation and parks departments. For many residents, Mt. Pleasant is known as the place where they send their taxes.
Only a handful of attendees were from Sleepy Hollow. Among them was Bruce Campbell, a former three-term trustee of the village, who reminded the Board that they represented Sleepy Hollow as well as other parts of the Town. “You should feel bad that a section of your constituency has for so long been denied, essentially, their franchise,” Campbell said. “You should be concerned that they are not being given their full rights as American citizens.”
At that point, a woman towards the back of the room shouted, “How do you know they’re all American citizens, sir?” If the plaintiffs were Republicans and not Democrats,” she continued, “would you be here?”
Also addressing the Board was Sergio Serratto, one of the five prospective plaintiffs. He rejected claims that the entire exercise was about Hispanics trying to usurp power they hadn’t earned through the ballot box. “This is not about them versus us,” he insisted. “Do you represent them?” he asked Board members, gesturing to the audience. “Or do you represent us? No, it’s about ‘we the people.’”
Describing Sleepy Hollow’s two big Catholic churches, Rock of Salvation and St. Teresa of Avila as critical centers of the village’s Hispanic community, Serratto wondered if any of the elected officials had visited these cultural centers during the campaign. He knew the answer, having asked the leaders of those two parishes, and it was no.
Later, Mark Saracino, an independent who ran and won a Board seat in the latest election on the Republican ticket, stated that he had campaigned in Sleepy Hollow, met with business owners and walked the village. “I’d like to believe I was their candidate,” he said, adding, “What I hope to learn (after he is seated next month) is where this disenfranchisement is coming from. What are we not fulfilling for them that’s making them sit out of the elections?”
Other speakers at the hearing recommended that the Board acquiesce to the call for change. Jonathan Blackman, an attorney from Pleasantville who said he had litigated cases under the federal voting rights law, said, “This is a clear case of dilution” and urged the board not to waste money fighting it.
The hour-long hearing did include some constructive suggestions, ranging from full conversion to a ward system, which would divide the Town into roughly equal voting districts, to rank choice voting or cumulative voting that would reward voters’ second or third choices. Francesca Hagadus-McHale of Pleasantville, a former Board member, suggested a hybrid model that would designate Sleepy Hollow and Pleasantville, the two incorporated villages, as independent districts while the remaining unincorporated hamlets would continue to vote “at large.”
A second public hearing is scheduled for Monday evening, November 20th, after which the elected leaders of Mt. Pleasant must come up with a remedy—or fight. Under the law, they have only until Thanksgiving to commit, but knowledgeable sources say that deadline will most likely slip. For how long, however, is unclear.Read or leave a comment on this story...