Islip Town Hall.

Islip Town Hall. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

Attorneys argued in federal court Thursday over whether changing Islip Town’s voting system — which plaintiffs say prevents Latinos from having equal representation — ahead of November’s elections would be possible or create too much disruption.

Plaintiff attorneys contended that the voting system must be overhauled now to prevent further voting rights violations to the Latino community. But defense attorneys for Islip Town and the Suffolk Board of Elections said changing the system just a few months before the election could disenfranchise town voters overall.

The arguments came on the last day of hearings on plaintiffs’ request for a preliminary injunction, which seeks to change town elections from at-large — in which candidates are elected by a townwide majority — to councilmanic, meaning council members represent districts. The plaintiffs, a group of four Brentwood residents and two community groups, are seeking to create at least one district with a Latino majority before a lawsuit on the issue would go to trial.

Even U.S. District Court Judge Arthur Spatt questioned whether it would make more sense to change the system now or at a later date.

“The change in form of government will cause all kinds of diversions and delays, especially coming this close to election time,” Spatt said. “If you were to succeed, the question is when.”

Plaintiffs filed the lawsuit in June, alleging the at-large system dilutes the votes of the Latino population, leading to discrimination and substandard services in Brentwood, Central Islip and North Bay Shore, the lawsuit said.  

Town officials had disputed allegations of bias during three weeks of hearings, but town attorneys Thursday did not address plaintiffs' concerns in closing arguments. Instead, they focused on how changing the electoral system now could potentially create other voting issues.

Creating districts now would depress voter turnout and create confusion for both voters and candidates, including by shortening the tenure of elected officials already in office and throwing nominated town board candidates off the ballot, defense attorneys said. 

“This is not a democracy,” defense attorney Michael Carvin said. “This is a sham election.”

A trial, not a preliminary injunction, should settle the question over creating council districts in time for the 2021 town board elections, Carvin said.

Frederick K. Brewington, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said the defense’s argument amounts to telling Islip Latinos, who are about a third of the town’s population, “Just wait until we’re good and ready to have your rights exercised.” 

“They’re placing their feet on the throat of the Latino community and applying pressure, even today,” he said.

Brewington said changing the voting system would be disruptive regardless of when that would happen, and deciding the issue now would prevent a longer period of uncertainty.

The board of elections is not taking a position on the merits of the case or of the constitutionality of the at-large voting structure, attorney Daniel Furshpan said. But election officials would be unlikely to make deadlines for certifying ballots and sending them to military personnel stationed overseas with such short notice.

“There’s no logistical, realistic way of changing the system in time for the November election,” he said.

Spatt reserved a decision on the injunction.

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