Fallon, Scott, Lesser, Benjamin, Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal
Mapping and analysis provide deeper grasp of Justice Department's balloting investigation
Racial issues and Teaneck, N.J., seem to go hand in hand.
This tree-lined, middle-class suburb of 40,000 has had one of the largest black suburban communities in New Jersey for decades. It is a town that has a history of racial progress (in 1964 it became the first school district in the United States to integrate its school system voluntarily) and racial strife (in 1990 a black teenager was shot and killed by a white police officer, touching off months of unrest).
Through it all, Teaneck has had consistent black representation on the Township Council and Board of Education. So when the Department of justice last year began investigating whether Teaneck's election system was unfair to black residents and therefore in violation of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, it caught many by surprise.
The Justice Department, acting on a complaint sent by an anonymous local resident, was examining whether Teaneck's at-large elections should be replaced with a ward system to ensure that the town's sizable black community (about 11,000 or 28 percent of the town's population) has belter representation on the Township Council and Board of Education. At the time, there was only one black school board member out of nine, and the seven-member Township Council had not had a black representative since 2000.
We didn't want to wait for the Justice Department's conclusion. We wanted to investigate as well. Department officials were of little help. They were not offering anything on the investigation other than confirming its existence.
We had to find another route. First, we retraced the steps of the department investigators by contacting those who had been interviewed by the agency. Most were willing to talk about everything they had discussed with investigators. They also pointed us in the direction ofolhers who had been interviewed.
To get a sense of how the Justice Department conducted its investigations, we began looking at what the agency had done in other communities across the nation. A lot of this was done through online research from newspaper accounts, old DOJ press releases and finally interviews with the public officials, activists and former candidates in cities from Euclid, Ohio, to Santa Paula, Calif. The investigations were often very complicated. These were not Jim Crow-era Southern communities where cliscnfranchiscment was obvious.
Once we had an idea of how the DOJ operated these investigations, we requested through New Jersey's public records law all the documents the DOJ had requested from Teaneck. Most of these were meeting minutes and election results going back to the early 1990s. Unfortunately, most of the election results were available only on paper. This meant manually inputting more than a thousand numbers into a spreadsheet thanks to Teaneck's 21 election districts and races that sometimes had as many as nine candidates.
We then contacted Alabama attorney Edward Still, who has specialized in Voting Rights Act cases across the nation for 30 years. Still explained to us that the DOJ investigators would be conducting a series of statistical analyses of recent Teaneck elections and the town's demographics.
The number crunchers at DOJ would be seeking to answer three key questions. First, was there racially polarized voting in Teaneck? In other words, do whites overwhelmingly vote for white candidates and blacks vote overwhelmingly for black candidates? Second, do black candidates routinely run for office and lose? And, third, can a ward system be implemented that creates at least one majority minority ward?
We sought out the assistance of a pair of political science professors to assist us in answering the first question, whether or not racially polarized voting existed in Teancck elections. Professors Bernard Grofman from the University of Caliiornia-lrvine and David Epstein from Columbia University agreed to advise us. …