Congressional and legislative redistricting battles tend to get most of the attention, but fights over local school boards, county legislatures, and city councils can be just as consequential.
Local offices impact Americans’ daily lives in big ways. They also can pipeline talent for higher offices and provide valuable grassroots opportunities for communities to learn to organize and exert political influence.
More importantly, they can be key testing grounds for the development of law in the redistricting area, especially today in the fluid period after the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County, which struck down key provisions of the Voting Rights Act.
At the same time, all redistricting litigation is expensive – requiring experts and development of detailed factual records. Without the same sorts of interest groups willing to fund congressional and legislative redistricting suits, many cases never get brought. The consequence is that both missed opportunities and redistricting mischief can be rife at the local level.
Here are four key cases worth keeping an eye on heading into 2015.
In what is being heralded as a potential test-case for the Supreme Court, a group of Hispanic residents in Pasadena, Texas filed a lawsuit alleging that the city’s electoral system dilutes their political power under the Voting Rights Act.
Since 1992, Pasadena had used single-member districts to elect its eight person city council. A 2013 ballot initiative narrowly passed by voters replaced two of the single-member districts with seats elected at-large. Hispanic voters claim this tactic was intended to reduce representation of the city’s growing Hispanic population, with Nina Perales of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund arguing that the timing was not incidental: “It was starting to look like very soon Latino candidates of choice would be a majority on the council. And that’s the point at which the mayor announces following the Shelby decision, let’s change these seats back to at-large.”
With claims that the new council structure was intentionally discriminatory, the case could be a test of what power remains in the Voting Rights Act after the Supreme Court’s Shelby County decision gutting the Voting Rights Act.
In the wake of unrest in Ferguson after the recent Michael Brown grand jury decision, a number of commentators remarked on low rates of voter turnout among the city’s African-American community and the fact that five of six of the city councilors in the overwhelmingly African-American majority city are white.
A new suit filed by the ACLU and Missouri NAACP contends, however, that the electoral systems being used in Ferguson also contribute to the African-American community’s lack of effective political power by “locking African-Americans out of the political process” through use of at-large elections.
The suit targets the Ferguson-Florissant School District, where only one of seven trustees is African American despite the fact that African Americans make up a substantial minority in the district and 77% of the district’s school children. Drawing single member districts, the plaintiffs say, would make it easier in the face of racially polarized voting for African Americans to elect genuine community representatives.
Although the Ferguson suit is high profile, it is part of a wider quiet revolution taking place as a result of similar suits around the country – with school districts in places like California “now widely turning away from at-large elections.”
While the typical remedy in these suits is the creation of single-member districts, the New York Times suggested that they could also provide courts (and settling parties) the opportunity to explore other remedies:
There are other solutions to the problem of racial polarization. Alternative vote-counting methods — like cumulative or choice voting — may do a better job of giving minorities a voice, especially as redistricting efforts grow more sophisticated.
In Ferguson, residential patterns and existence of only two major racial groups may make single-member districts the easiest fix. But as similar suits get filed in more ethnically diverse places like Texas – where residential housing patterns also are more intertwined – courts may have an opportunity to decide whether the Voting Rights Act mandates consideration of alternatives.
Yakima, Washington/Pasco, Washington:
The final redistricting plan for the city council in Yakima, Washington still rests in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington. After ruling in August that the city’s electoral system dilutes Latino votes, Judge Rice ordered the City of Yakima and the ACLU to create and submit their own city council district maps. The Judge has yet to choose which set of maps will be implemented.
The Yakima ruling was an important decision on a number of key questions, including the question of whether Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act requires use of citizen population rather than total population (answer: total population is sufficient) and whether judgment without a trial is possible given the court’s need to consider the “totality of the circumstances” (answer: yes, if the factual record is there).
In response to the issues in Yakima as well as rapid population growth, the city council in Pasco, Washington is acting proactively to avoid litigation, choosing to redraw its council districts in addition to considering other changes to its electoral system.
Fayette County, Georgia:
This past November marked the first time in history that elections in Fayette County, Georgia were determined under a district system rather than at-large voting. The change came as a result of a lawsuit filed against the county by the NAACP more than three years ago claiming that the at-large voting system violated the Voting Rights Act because it prevented minorities from being elected to the school board and county commission. U.S. District Judge Timothy Batten agreed, ruling in early 2014 that the at-large system must be replaced with five voting districts.
Now, however, it appears that this case is headed back to the lower court after a three-judge panel from the 11th Circuit issued a ruling on January 7 remanding the case for further proceedings. In their 26-page decision, the appeals judges were careful to avoid the merits of the case, instead focusing on the need for “evidentiary determinations that summary judgment does not permit.” As a result, they concluded that “this case warrants a limited remand so that the district court may conduct a trial.”