HUDSON–In the city’s Common Council, the vote of one alderperson from the 5th Ward can override the votes of three alderpersons from the 1st and 4th Wards. One 5th Ward vote “weighs” 364 under the city’s weighted vote system, while one 1st or 4th Ward vote weighs 95. Wards are assigned their voting weights based on from population and other factors. But a new effort called the Fair & Equal movement has organized with the goal of assigning each member of the council an equal vote.
Fair & Equal proposes new ward boundaries with equal populations. To accomplish this the group calls for a referendum this November to approve the new boundaries, with the boundaries taking effect in the 2017 election. If that happens, the Common Council that takes office at the beginning of 2018 would have members each of whom would have one vote on any business before the council.
Right now the Fair & Equal group’s concern is getting enough signatures on petitions by July 6 for the November referendum.
After working on their plan for months, Fair & Equal activists kicked off their signature drive in mid-June and held a public meeting in the Hudson Area Library June 23. Speakers at that meeting included press liaison Beth Kanaga, Kevin Hannan of Hudson Forward, Ted Gramkow, and “resident expert” Steve Dunn. About 30 people attended, including some members of the Hudson City Common Council and the Columbia County Board of Supervisors.
According to Fair & Equal, every other city council in the United States gives each alderperson one vote. Some cities regularly change ward boundaries, and New York state allows such changes once a decade following the national census. But Hudson ward boundaries have stayed the same since 1886. To adjust for population shifts, after every census the city pays an office associated with Rutgers University to derive weights for each ward, according to the Office of the Hudson City Clerk. This calculation uses not only population size but also “the probability that person will cast a deciding vote,” said a speaker at the Fair & Equal event June 23.
Table 1 shows each ward with its weight and population from information supplied by Fair and Equal. The fourth column shows each ward’s percent of the alderpersons’ vote weight. It ranges from 10.3% in the 1st and 4th Wards to 39.6% in the 5th. (These percents ignore the vote of the president of the Common Council, which has its own weight.) The fifth column shows each ward’s percentage of the city’s total population. It ranges from 9.3% for Ward 1 to 39.7% for Ward 5. The last column shows the ratio of the weight % to the population %. It ranges from .87 for the 2nd Ward to 1.17 for the 3rd.
“Is it good for a city to be assigned different levels of voting power based on where you live?” asked Mr. Hannan. He answered his own question by calling the current situation “not fair to the entire community!”
Fair & Equal called for “a city where each person is valued the same… where council members have more incentive to work together because their votes are equal.”
“There’s no reason for weighted voting,” Mr. Hannan said. “We don’t need computers to solve the problem. The solution is simple,” only requiring “minor changes to ward boundaries.”
Fair & Equal presented a map with suggested new ward boundaries and nearly equal population in each ward. Table 2 shows the results of this proposal. Mr. Dunn said he designed the map using the following rules: Five wards with 1,260 to 1,299 people in each, keep census tracts together, and keeping Warren Street a dividing line, while minimizing the number of people who change wards. “It was a challenge, but I love this stuff,” he said.
The new map proposes greatly extending the boundaries of the 1st Ward while reducing those of the 5th. Still, said Mr. Dunn, a retired lawyer, “This map is not forever. In 2022, when new census results come, the city council can redraw ward lines.”
Asked whether Hudson could become one big ward, with all 10 alderpersons elected at large, Peter Frank—gathering signatures the previous day—said that since the city is majority white, the entire city electing every alderperson might “whitewash” the Common Council, obscuring the city’s diversity.
“A powerful consideration in redistricting is whether it would dis-empower racial minorities,” said Supervisor Don Moore (3rd Ward) at the June 23 meeting.
Mr. Dunn replied, “In our map, the 2nd Ward, which has the highest minority population,” has an advantage over the current system.
Over the years, various proposals for ward reconfiguration and ward boundary clarification have received attention. Last year, during one such consideration, Mr. Moore—then president of the Common Council—expressed respect for the ward definitions specified by the city charter.
The idea of equal-size equal-vote wards has enthusiastic supporters. “We’re committed to getting this passed this year,” said Ms. Kanaga. “We’re asking Hudson residents to help us.”