Voting rights advocates are celebrating after a series of court rulings struck down discriminatory voter ID laws that make it harder for minorities to cast a ballot. But they’re not declaring victory just yet. Now, civil rights groups are turning their attention to districts where majority white legislatures are using an even more insidious way to dilute the influence of voters of color.
Latino voters, now one-third of the national electorate, will play a key part in choosing the next president. But just how much of a role they will be allowed to play in local elections is still uncertain.
Two new lawsuits are highlighting the battle over this role. Last week, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law filed a suit against Gwinnett County, Georgia — the most racially diverse county in the southeastern United States — claiming the district’s combined 53.5 percent Latino, black, and Asian population is underrepresented on the board of commissioners. And earlier this month, the American Civil Liberties Union sued Pasco, Washington, alleging the absence of Latinos on the city council violates the Voting Rights Act.
As the Latino share of the population expands in many districts, their presence on city councils, county commissions, and other local bodies should grow as well. But that representation is lagging in many places where Latinos make up pluralities or even majorities. In order to maintain white control of local governing bodies, cities and counties have deployed an old Jim Crow-era tactic: at-large voting districts.
In an at-large system, every city resident votes for each member of the governing body and the city does not divide voters into districts. Instead of allowing each district to elect its own representative, an at-large system means that unless Latino populations reach a majority in the entire city or county, they will have no influence in electing their local members of government.
“Right now we’re at a moment where there’s great focus on the presidency and who will occupy the White House come January, but the reality is that these electoral positions have tremendous impact on people’s day-to-day lives,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee.
No Latino, black, or Asian-American candidate has ever been elected to Gwinnett County’s board of commissioners, board of election, or any other county office, according to the Lawyers’ Committee’s lawsuit. The chair of the board of commissioners is elected at-large, and because of racially-polarized voting, white voters form a bloc to vote against minority candidates.
According to the lawsuit, white voters only make up 55.7 percent of the electorate in against Gwinnett County, so their candidates of choice should not make up 100 percent of local bodies.
“You have a situation in which minority voters, their candidates of choice never prevail,” Clarke said. “We’ve made it a priority to mount challenges to electoral systems that unfairly deny minority voters equal access to the political process.”
The disparity is on full display in Pasco, where a Latino candidate has never won a contested seat, even though a Latino has run for city council in nearly every election since 1990, according to the ACLU. That suit also asks the city to employ a different type of election system that doesn’t discriminate against Latinos.
At-large voting systems have been around since the Jim Crow era, when Southern towns invented ways to disenfranchise their sizable African American populations. But recent challenges have successfully undercut these tactics.
In August 2014, a court in Washington struck down the city of Yakima, Washington’s at-large voting system, ruling that it was discriminatory and violated Section 2 of the VRA. Last year, Laughlin McDonald, director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, said the decision in Yakima would have a “very important impact” on future litigation against at-large districts.
Lawsuits have sprung up more frequently in areas with rapidly growing Latino populations, like Santa Barbara, California and Pasadena, Texas.
Though the lawsuits in Gwinnett County and Pasco are seeking immediate relief — potentially before November — Clarke says she expects to see more of these challenges to voting systems in the coming years after the upcoming general election, especially in 2020 when lawmakers will redraw congressional and state legislative districts all over the country based on the new census.
“There will be more focus on some of these problematic redistricting plans and electoral systems that unfairly deny minority voters access to the political process,” she said.
Clarke noted that as the minority population grows in Gwinnett County, the stakes get higher and higher.
“With the demographic shifts we’ve seen in the last several years… it’s imperative that we bring this case now.”