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Conservatives’ Federal Case Challenges Immigrant Voting — Using Ex-Council Members’ Own Words

Adams administration officials, including culture commissioner Laurie Cumbo, feature prominently in case that alleges illegal racially discriminatory intent that harms Black voters.

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Then-Council Majority Leader Laurie Cumbo speaks in support of Eric Adams at a campaign rally in Cadman Plaza on Wednesday, June 2, 2021.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

An Indiana-based conservative legal group has filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking to derail a local law that would allow more than 800,000 noncitizens to vote in local New York City elections.

Four Black registered voters in the city represented by the Public Interest Legal Foundation (PILF) allege that the law was motivated by racially discriminatory intent that violates the Voting Rights Act.

The plaintiffs include Deroy Murdock, a political commentator and contributor to the conservative outlets National Review Online and Fox News.

The PILF suit cites former Brooklyn Councilmember Laurie Cumbo, a Democrat who now serves as the city’s Cultural Affairs commissioner under Mayor Eric Adams, who had warned during City Council debate that the bill could disempower Black voters. 

“This particular legislation is going to shift the power dynamics in New York City in a major way,” she said at the time.

The conservative legal group also cited statements from bill sponsor Ydanis Rodriguez, now city Department of Transportation commissioner under Adams, that the suit alleges are evidence of intentional racial bias in the bill. 

“[B]ecause we as a city have decided that this city has changed the color of the skin of people coming to this city, then we change it who will be voting in this city,” the suit quotes Rodriguez as having said.

The latest lawsuit, which was filed Monday, asserts: “It was the explicit intent of the Law’s sponsors to increase the voting strength of certain racial subgroups while simultaneously decreasing the voting strength of other racial subgroups.”

The lawsuit also points to census data showing that the bulk of foreign nationals living in New York City are Latino or Asian — groups they argue would get a leg up under the voting law at the expense of Black voters.

A state court recently dismissed a similar lawsuit from the group to knock down the law — which would allow permanent residents and green card holders to vote in elections for mayor, comptroller, public advocate, borough presidents and City Council members.

Immigration advocates rallied outside City Hall in support of voting rights in local elections, Oct. 21, 2021.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The shift to the federal case follows a June injunction issued by a Staten Island state Supreme Court judge in a separate case filed by Borough President Vito Fossella and other local Republican elected officials. They successfully argued that the legislation violated the state constitution and New York election law — which both specify that only citizens can vote.

The division of power between state and local governments would also necessitate a referendum on the issue before any election laws are changed, according to the ruling in that case. The Adams administration is now appealing that decision. 

Study Denied

Ahead of last year’s Council vote on the bill, which passed 33 to 14, Cumbo publicly expressed concern that the makeup of permanent residents and green card holders would benefit the Latino community at the expense of the Black community — and her requests for a study on that potential impact on Black voters were rebuffed, the lawsuit says.

“We’re all here to support our ethnic groups, and we’re all here to make sure that we all win, but I need to know in supporting this, which I need more time, how are African-Americans going to be impacted, because that’s the community I come from,” Cumbo is quote as saying. “I’m clear how the Dominican Republic community will benefit, but not the African American community, and it’s only fair that I know that information.”

Public Interest Legal Foundation is one of four nonprofits that Reuters identified in 2020 as part of a network of attorneys that has fed into the national Republican push to seek voting restrictions and purge voters from the rolls. Those four groups were involved in 61 lawsuits filed over election rules over an eight-year period, the news service reported.

Lauren Bowman, a spokesperson for PILF, said her group is making legal arguments different from those advanced by the New York City Republican officials, and that it remains unclear the Staten Island decision will stand anyway.

“We do believe there’s a good chance the judge hearing this on appeal will reverse the lower court’s decision,” she told THE CITY.

City Hall and City Council officials didn’t respond to a request for comment. Cumbo didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. 

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