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He sued an Alabama city for diluting ‘the strength of Black voters.’ Now he’s on the council.

AL.com 8/30/2022 Rebecca Griesbach, al.com
Pleasant Grove City Hall © Anna Beahm/al.com/TNS Pleasant Grove City Hall

Eric Calhoun sued a small Alabama city four years ago for maintaining an election system that he said was unfair, unconstitutional and was created to “dilute the strength of Black voters.”

Now, the longtime Pleasant Grove resident is starting a new role as a city councilman.

Calhoun, who was appointed to the Pleasant Grove City Council last Monday, was a plaintiff in a 2018 federal lawsuit that took aim at the city’s at-large election method.

The method, plaintiffs charged, violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by requiring candidates to run from numbered places, rather than single districts.

“In places like Pleasant Grove where the white majority votes against the candidates preferred by Black voters, at-large elections effectively lock Black voters out of local government,” read a complaint filed by the Legal Defense Fund.

Pleasant Grove, according to Census data, is now 62% Black. In 1990, it was just 2% Black.

NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund attorney Deuel Ross, who filed the suit on behalf of Calhoun, said the city had managed to maintain a majority-white stronghold until the early 2000s, mostly due to a “very long and egregious history of racial discrimination.”

In 1971, the town’s school board lost a bid to secede from Jefferson County because it refused to purchase buses needed to provide transportation for Black students. The municipal school system then ended operations.

In 1987, a court ruled that the town had tried to “selectively annex” white portions of the county into its borders.

And until last year, only one Black resident had earned a spot on the city council.

“Pleasant Grove is a bit of a microcosm of the state of Alabama as a whole, in which Black voters… are packed into one district, and majority-Black parts of the state are being divided up in a way that they don’t have adequate representation,” Ross said.

Under Pleasant Grove’s previous voting method, candidates in local races appeared on ballots citywide, rather than in single districts, which Calhoun and other plaintiffs claimed had unfairly benefited white voters. Calhoun was asking the city for months to explore a different election method, Ross said, but to no avail.

The Legal Defense Fund filed a lawsuit on behalf of Calhoun in December 2018.

“The whole thing is about representation and as it appears, it’s an issue that will have to be addressed,” Calhoun told AL.com in 2018, after the NAACP issued its initial complaint.

“They can kind of skirt around it, they can do all those things, but they can’t just let it go.”

Pleasant Grove eventually settled with the plaintiffs in 2019.

To date, the city still uses the at-large voting method, but switched to a practice called cumulative voting that allows residents to vote for multiple candidates, rather than a winner-take-all approach.

Under the new method, council members Yolanda Lawson, Ray Lassiter and Kevin Dunn were elected last fall, marking the first time Black members held a majority on the city council.

Calhoun’s appointment, however, could signal a real shift of political power to Black council members, since the mayor, who is white, also has the opportunity to vote.

“Color is not the issue,” Calhoun said in an interview with the Guardian last week after securing the position. “The issue is representation and to make sure that we have a diverse city.”

Calhoun could not be reached for comment by the time of publication, but according to previous reporting, he holds a range of political and public service experience.

Calhoun’s first run for political office was in 2014, when he ran unsuccessfully for Jefferson County Commission under a Libertarian ticket. At the time, he had more than 30 years of experience working for the city of Birmingham.

He also holds a J.D. from Miles Law School, a Master’s degree in public affairs from Kentucky State University and a Bachelor’s degree in accounting from Wilberforce University in Ohio.

For Ross, Calhoun’s appointment is a signal that the Voting Rights Act can effectively do what it was set out to do: to protect Black voters. In fact, he said, it wouldn’t be the first time cities have changed their voting systems after a similar legal challenge.

In the 1986 landmark Dillard v. Crenshaw County case, the LDF and Alabama voting rights attorney Jim Blacksher successfully challenged the use of discriminatory at-large elections in nearly 200 of Alabama’s cities, counties and school boards.

More recently, a lawsuit was settled in December 2019 against the Jefferson County School Board, where four members were previously elected at-large from other areas of the county.

Redistricting required by the settlement will go into effect this year – which Ross says could also result in more Black representation on the school board.

Meanwhile other municipalities, he said, could easily vote to switch from at-large to single-district voting methods. Larger cities, however, may have to issue a referendum.

“The lack of representation for Black people in the Voting Rights Act affects every level of government, both in Alabama and all over the country,” Ross said.

©2022 Advance Local Media LLC. Visit al.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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