Joyce Banks is the only plaintiff in the historic 1987 voting rights lawsuit still living in Peoria. Four have died and another lives on the east coast.
The lawsuit, settled in 1987, increased minority representation on the Peoria Public School Board, Peoria Park District Board and Peoria City Council. As a result of the settlement, the School Board, Park Board and five City Council seats are elected from established districts rather than city-wide. The other five City Council seats are elected at-large (city-wide) using a cumulative voting process.
Banks’ experience, both as a former at-large council candidate and a plaintiff in the lawsuit, has given her special insight into efforts to increase and maintain minority representation in Peoria. An edited excerpt of Banks’ interview follows. To see the full interview go to https://www.facebook.com/robin.granthambryant.1/videos/379738469235178/
Q: Can you tell us why the lawsuit was initiated and explain cumulative voting?
Joyce: It started with people talking about the lack of African-American representation on the governmental bodies in Peoria. Looking at the Park District, the School District and City Council, all of those seats predominately were filled by white Peorians. If you are going to represent the entire community, all of the community needs to be able to sit at the table. You can’t know my story. I can tell my story. When it comes to planning for the park district and what programs should be there, or planning and implementing programs from the school board and city council, people who look like you and me needed to be sitting at the table.
Those positions were at-large positions and we had to prove to the court that at-large races worked against African-Americans. We had to show the number of African-Americans who had run in at-large races, but had lost, because we didn’t have the collective vote to be able to elect them. We could show easily that black folk voted for black folk and white folk voted for white folk for the lion’s share.
What the voting rights suit attempted to do initially with the City Council was to divide the city into ten wards to ensure that there would be at least one African-American sitting on City Council but the City did not want that. They did not want the ten wards. It had not been that long that the City had just adopted five at large seats under city-wide voting. So what we then were able to negotiate was cumulative voting for the city which would allow a person to cast five votes for one individual, giving a person a weighted vote. If an African-American candidate were running at-large, I could cast my five votes for that one individual. We dilute our vote when we decide, well, I’m going to vote for you over here and vote for you over there. iI means that I’m giving each person 2.5 votes, or if I’m voting for five people because there are five at-large seats, then, I’m only giving one vote to each person. There is no advantage …
Q: So you’re saying that diluting our vote can work against African-Americans?
Joyce: Yes, it can! It can! We have to educate ourselves to understand if we have an at-large candidate that we know is going to represent us on City Council then we need NOT to dilute our votes but give all five votes to that candidate. So that means that candidate is going to have an opportunity to win. There are many studies that show it works. There are folks who don’t like cumulative voting and want to go back to one-person one-vote, but we say as long as there are at-large seats it works to a disadvantage for minority residents. I encourage very strongly that if there is a person running for an at-large seat you have an opportunity to cast five votes for that person. That’s what cumulative voting is about and we encourage folks to use that collectively.
As African Americans living in the city, if we get behind one person and support that person with our five votes, there is no way they will not win. We will only lose if we do not vote or dilute our vote.
We believe it’s important that we sit at the table so we can bring the issues that are germane to the African-American community to the table. We can’t get upset with someone because they don’t know our plight … they have not had to walk our walk. I can articulate that during committees; I can articulate that when we get ready to vote. We need to have some people on City Council! We’ve elected two but, who says two is enough? We have an opportunity coming up now. Like your grandmother would say around her table, ‘I’m just saying’, you’ve got five votes. Find that one person and cast all five votes for that person.