08/21/2013 07:09 pm ET

Texas Town Considers At-Large District Plan Accused Of Suppressing Latino Vote


The Mayor of the Houston suburb of Pasadena, Johnny Isbell, is proposing to swap two of the town’s single-member districts for at-large districts -- a voting system being challenged by Hispanics across the country who say the system makes it harder to elect Latino candidates.

The proposed change comes on the heels of the Supreme Court’s decision to eliminate the requirements that certain states pre-clear alterations to their voting systems with the Department of Justice, as the widely read Texan blog Burnt Orange Report notes.

"This decision by the Mayor and the majority of the Council is exactly the type of change the Voting Rights Act was intended to prevent,” Texas State Senator Sylvia Garcia said in a statement. “I am extremely disappointed that the Council approved this charter amendment despite the opposition by the citizen's commission and the minority community."

The Houston Chronicle joined Garcia in trampling the proposal, saying even considering the change is “distressing.”

“Historically, replacing districts with at-large seats has been used to discriminatory ends, and such moves are often blocked by the Department of Justice,” the Chronicle wrote in an op-ed. “Only a few months ago, that would have been the case here. Not anymore.”

Single-member districts elect only one candidate, who lives in the district he or she represents. At-large districts, on the other hand, elect multiple candidates who represent the district as a whole. Opponents of at-large districts say the system makes it harder to elect minority candidates, because at-large districts tend to favor majority ethnic voting blocs and wealthy candidates from more affluent neighborhoods who have the resources to run citywide campaigns more effectively.

The at-large district system received increased scrutiny after the police killing of unarmed 25-year-old Manuel Diaz, a suspected gang member, in Anaheim last year. The issue raised questions about the relationship between the local government and the city’s growing Latino community.

But though the Latino community accounted for 53 percent of Anaheim’s population, not a single Hispanic sat on City Council. Four out of five of the council members lived in the wealthy Anaheim Hills area of the city.

The issue is not isolated to Anaheim. Several California cities have faced lawsuits from Latino groups who say the at-large system dilutes their votes in city council and school board elections. The 2001 California Voting Rights Act prohibits at-large systems if they are shown to stymie the influence of ethnic, racial or language minority groups.

U.S. District Court Judge Sidney Fitzwater overturned the at-large system in Farmers Branch, Texas, last year, after 10 Latino residents filed a lawsuit against it under the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Image via txGeek @ Flickr.



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