In last week’s cover story, Bob Fitrakis described the “command and control” nature of Columbus’s all At-Large City Council structure that came from the great industrialists of America in the 1890s – 1920’s. (“We want to make car, you screw bolt.”)

The article stated that Columbus and Seattle are the only two remaining At Large councils of the 50 largest American cities: three years ago, Detroit voters went to Districts, last year Austin voters went to Districts, and this year, even Seattle voters have initiated a reform effort to move toward Districts and which – if passed – will leave us all in our lonely backwater selves among major cities in America.

Fitrakis nailed the impact of Socialists winning elections in Columbus! on our current political structure in his piece, but he left out that fact that At Large elections were also used to dilute minority voting  power all across the Deep South following the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Once even the bars to Black folk were rolled back (we’ll have to have Bob talk more about incarceration, overcharging, over-conviction and disenfranchisement of Black felons across the south in another article), formerly ward and district-based governance models such as Bob described in early Columbus became suddenly unpalatable in the Deep South and the tried and tested At Large systems were dusted off (since the Great Industrialists had missed the South with their effort in the early 1900s), and a wave of At Large voting models became suddenly popularized starting in 1966.  

Then, amendments to the Voting Rights Act in 1982 clarified that in jurisdictions with history of segregated voting patterns, At Large voting patterns could constitute unlawful voter discrimination, and the U.S. Department of Justice rolled out over 340 lawsuits claiming just that for the next 30 years  – resulting in a kind of “status quo ante” across the Deep South where Southern voters had to play by rules --- only this time under rules that were fair to everybody. Voter dilution makes minority votes meaningless by drowning them in a sea of majority votes – an ethnic gerrymandering of sorts.  With the Supreme Court’s recent partial repeal of those voting restrictions held against the south, the waves of voter suppression have opened up across the south again, though, as state legislature after state legislature now rushes to clamp down on democracy for all.

The only difference in Columbus is that we never went through the messy part about actually having to acknowledge the intentional consequences of At Large voting formats. In our world, At Large systems eliminate divisiveness; when in fact what they do is merely suppress diversity in views.

We now have at least two council candidates in the 2013 council election who believe the citizens should have a chance to vote on District-based governance, and a City Council that predictably says At Large systems are the best thing ever and are near solely responsible for Columbus’s relative successes over the years (never mind those water/sewer/annexation policies that have allowed Columbus corporate boundaries to grow with suburban growth, the seat of state government, the home of the largest university in the nation, and all those corporate headquarters – it is the magnificent seven that get it all done.  Pick a seven, any seven, it doesn’t matter – they are all wonderful).

In addition to maintaining the most expensive form of election possible (At Large) to reduce meaningful competition in a one-party town where everybody has to get appointed to serve on council (run against a party incumbent in a primary? – bad Democrat --- you get nothing. Dr. Bob didn’t mention that in some cases our newly appointed nominees to council never even get 1,000 signatures to sign off on their candidacies – a requirement of the City Charter.  

Instead, Council announces pending vacancies just before the filing period for nomination forms, holds an application process where it is made clear that candidates for appointment would not be viewed as good party members if they actually file nominations outside the appointment process, then the council members on the ballot in that year (whose petitions are due in February) circulate petitions with placeholder names!  Placeholders -- people who never intend to serve in office!  

Once the candidate and placeholder signatures are gathered (and the timeline for potential appointees to gather signatures has expired), Council makes its appointments to fill the temporary vacancies on council, which must be voted on at the next election.  Shortly thereafter, the placeholders withdraw their names though the nominating committee, giving the nominating committee the right to  inserts the names of the newly-appointed council members, when then get on the ballot without any more than 5 Columbus voters ever saying it is OK. Certainly not the 1,000 Columbus voters the City Charter calls for. Oh – and then the Council President gives the newly appointed council members almost all the money they need for their campaign in the coming November (more than $108,000 each in the 2011 election cycle).

Now that is a real well oiled political machine.  Good ole’ boy style corruption with a smile in its full unvarnished glory and subservience of democratic intent to undemocratic end.  Next week, we’ll provide the timeline, documents, and the paper trail.

My predictions for 2014: Herschel Craig resigns before the end of his term, and Tracey Heard who is term limited from her state representative position is appointed in January to Council to stand for office as an incumbent officeholder in November. Any takers?