Stephanie Simon, Wall Street Journal, July 25, 2009
Latino activists are seeking to gain political clout by forcing electoral changes in communities nationwide, using a recent federal court decision in Irving, Texas, as a template.
The city of 200,000, a Dallas suburb, was ordered to reorganize its municipal election system to give Hispanics more voting power. Irving had been choosing its council members through citywide “at large” elections, but U.S. District Judge Jorge A. Solis ruled that the system diluted the influence of Irving’s fast-growing minority population, which is concentrated in the southern half of the city.
He didn’t impose a specific remedy but said any new system–perhaps electing council members by district–must allow “Hispanics to elect candidates of their own choosing.”
The ruling offers a road map for activists who expect the 2010 census to show big growth in the Latino population, especially in Southern states such as Tennessee, Georgia and North Carolina. With the data in hand, they plan to press politicians to give Latino residents more influence when they redraw congressional and state legislative districts, and to force cities and towns to retool municipal elections–or face lawsuits like the one in Irving.
Irving, like other suburbs of Dallas, has churned with ethnic tension in recent years. City police have turned over more than 1,600 illegal immigrants suspected of various crimes to federal authorities for deportation, to the outrage of some in the Hispanic community. Last year, the Justice Department sent federal observers to monitor city elections to ensure compliance with the Voting Rights Act.
Nationwide, Latinos and other minorities have been challenging at-large voting systems in court for three decades and have won scores of victories, including a landmark case in Dallas in 1990.
Afterward, Dallas was divided into 14 council districts, which has greatly increased minority representation–but has also fueled discontent, with critics saying the council members run their districts like fiefdoms, with little concern for the greater good.
Mr. Gears says he supports diversity on the Irving city council but fears adopting a Dallas-style system will jeopardize the city’s stability–built on a strong business community and low tax rate–by “creating parochialism and opportunities for corruption and shenanigans.”
Latino advocates respond that they deserve a voice in policy making and will insist on districts and election rules that make that possible.
Census directors are making an all-out effort to reach Hispanics and other groups considered hard to count because of language and cultural barriers. For the first time, the census will send a bilingual questionnaire to 13 million Spanish-speaking homes. Telemundo is even integrating census-related plot twists into its Spanish-language soap operas.
“After the census we can expect tons of legal challenges, because in many ways it’s a spoils system,” said Ellen Katz, a law professor at the University of Michigan who studies voting rights. “Everyone is grabbing.”