New York

Latinos Have Transformed Sleepy Hollow, but Not Their Town Board

It’s not hard to find signs of the Latino influence in this working-class village along the Hudson River: Mexican taquerias and Ecuadorean delis dot the promenade along Beekman Avenue, and neighbors greet one another in Spanish, while colorful flags dance in the wind.

More than half the Village of Sleepy Hollow is of Hispanic origin, according to the most recent census. But those demographics are rarely reflected on Election Day.

The village, about 30 miles north of New York City, is part of the Town of Mount Pleasant, which uses an at-large voting system that allows residents to cast ballots for all open positions.

The Mount Pleasant town board has no Latino members, and no one could recall the last time it had one. That disconnect has led to a formal claim filed with the town, on behalf of five residents who say that they and other Latino voters are being disenfranchised.

The challenge is the first test of New York’s John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act, which offers some of the most comprehensive protections for communities of color in the nation. It creates new strictures on voter intimidation. And the law, which went into effect last year, makes it easier to claim voter suppression or dilution: Complainants can address voting issues without going to court, as has been the case, so far, in Mount Pleasant.

Sergio Serratto is one of five Latino voters claiming that they have been disenfranchised by the Town of Mount Pleasant.Credit…Gregg Vigliotti for The New York Times

In their claim, the residents urge the town to voluntarily change its at-large system, to avoid a lawsuit. “Our goal is to bring about the fair electoral process in the town of Mt. Pleasant that the N.Y.V.R.A. requires,” it reads.

In many of the state’s larger municipalities, voters are separated into geographic districts; each one is typically represented by one member on a city council or town board. But Mount Pleasant, like many smaller towns, does not use districts or wards, so voters cast ballots for all open seats.

Although Mount Pleasant is nearly 20 percent Hispanic, some argue that preferred candidates of Latinos have little chance to win an election, because in an at-large voting system the non-Hispanic majority will always be able to outvote them.

David Imamura, a Democratic county legislator and a lawyer who represents the Latino voters, said that he believed the disenfranchisement claim had merit, and if was to succeed, it could have broader implications in New York.

“You’re talking about dozens of municipalities where people of color are unable to elect candidates of their choice, right?” he said. “This law will allow them to get their seat at the table.”

Last month, the Town of Mount Pleasant approved a resolution announcing its intention to investigate claims of disenfranchisement. If an analysis determines that there is a violation, the town could replace its current at-large voting system with wards, or even ranked-choice voting.

The town attorney, Darius Chafizadeh, said it was too early to tell what the outcome might be. “Could there be a dispute later on? Sure,” he said, of a future lawsuit. “Could there be a way to compromise and create wards? Sure. All options are on the table as far as the town is concerned.”

At one time, this area was known for the cars it made: Chevys, Pontiacs and Buicks, shipped all over the country. After the General Motors plant shuttered, the village, then known as North Tarrytown, made headlines for changing its name to Sleepy Hollow, honoring the hamlet featured in onetime-resident Washington Irving’s supernatural tale.

Silvana Tapia, one of the voters represented in the claim, moved to Sleepy Hollow in 1993.Credit…Gregg Vigliotti for The New York Times

By the turn of the century, the area had become something of a mecca for Central Americans, particularly those from Ecuador, drawn in part by manufacturing jobs and a growing community. Real estate agencies brought in bilingual agents, and put out signs saying “Déjeme ayudarlo” — let me help you.

“I actually happened to see my neighbors that lived in Ecuador, be neighbors here in the village,” said Silvana Tapia, whose family moved to Sleepy Hollow in 1993 because her parents had heard that it had a good school system.

But even as Ms. Tapia has watched her community grow, she said she has noticed how few of the elected leaders looked or sounded like them.

Representation could have a profound effect on the community, she said, from simple things like language access to loftier goals like providing role models for future generations.

“By raising the challenge, we are taking a proactive role in shaping our community’s future,” said Ms. Tapia, one of the five claimants.

There have hardly been a raft of Latino candidates for the town board. Ms. Tapia says this is evidence of how difficult it is for Latinos to see themselves in power. Mr. Chafizadeh, the town attorney, suggests it demonstrates a lack of interest, rather than disenfranchisement.

To win the case, the Latino claimants need to demonstrate that their community has a specific political preference that has been overridden by the white majority.

County data shows that the Village of Sleepy Hollow voted Democratic in the 2021 local elections, while the broader Town of Mount Pleasant elected Republicans. Indeed, all four council members on the town board, and the town supervisor are Republicans, though registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by a wide margin in Mount Pleasant.

The Mount Pleasant town attorney, Darius Chafizadeh, said that the town’s stance was that “all options are on the table.”Credit…Gregg Vigliotti for The New York Times

Mr. Chafizadeh suggested that the disenfranchisement allegation might have partisan motivations, noting that Mr. Imamura works for Abrams Fensterman, a law firm that has close ties to powerful Democrats across the state.

He also pointed out how little overlap there is on practical matters between the Town of Mount Pleasant and Village of Sleepy Hollow, which has its own government and has elected Latinos in the past.

The mayor of Sleepy Hollow, Martin Rutyna, agreed, saying that for the most part the village had a “great relationship” with the Town of Mount Pleasant. “They don’t really push things on us. We don’t push it on them,” he said.

Even so, he said, the challenge presented a good opportunity for the village, and in particular its Hispanic residents, to have their voices heard.

“There’s a lot of things happening lately that, you know, maybe we have a different opinion,” Mr. Rutyna said, citing Mount Pleasant’s recent state of emergency declaration that effectively closed its doors to migrants seeking refuge. “I think our village might have had a different opinion,” he said.

If Mount Pleasant were to change its voting system, it would be possible to draw a majority Hispanic district, according to an analysis from Andy Beveridge and Susan Weber-Stoger of the data mapping company Social Explorer. But that district could still struggle to elect Latino candidates, according to that analysis, as just 30 percent of the drawn district’s Hispanic population would be citizens of voting age.

A pattern like that could complicate a claim under the Federal Voting Rights Act, but architects of New York’s law say that the claim could still bring other remedies like ranked-choice or cumulative voting.

“All that’s necessary, is that you show that there’s racially polarized voting — that you have a minority community that has particular preferences, and the majority that has different preferences,” said Michael Pernick, a redistricting counsel at the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense Fund. “And the minority communities’ preferences are outvoted by the majority, denying them representation.”

For her part, Ms. Tapia is heartened by the town’s response thus far, and what she sees as an opportunity to change the relationship that her community has with their representatives.

“I think it will show to everyone that inclusivity, diversity — they took that under consideration, and you can trust them,” Ms. Tapia said.

“You can trust the people working in your town.”

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