A group of Hispanic residents have filed a lawsuit against the town of Pasadena, Texas alleging that a recently passed measure to change the makeup of the city council is discriminatory and does not provide equal representation for the town’s 43 percent Hispanic voters.
The lawsuit accuses the working-class Houston suburb of violating the Voting Rights Act by allowing a measure to pass that will replace two city council seats with at-large seats, which are elected by the city as a whole instead of by individual districts. Since 1992, the city had been divided into eight districts, four of which were predominantly Hispanic and elected Latino candidates of choice.
While less than half of the voting age population of Pasadena is Latino, the town is actually more than 60 percent Hispanic and many residents are under the voting age or are not legal citizens.
Pasadena’s white mayor, Johnny Isbell proposed the measure just one month after the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013, ruling that southern states no longer need federal approval to issue changes to their election laws. “The justice department can no longer tell us what to do,” Isbell said when proposing the measure. The mayor also told voters before the election that the change would give everyone in the city more representation because they could elect three city council representatives instead of just one.
Nina Perales, lead counsel on the case and an attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund — the same group that recently challenged Texas’ voter ID law — told ThinkProgress the mayor decided to change the electoral system at a time when the Latino voting population is rapidly expanding and right before a fifth district which is almost 46 percent Hispanic could gain a majority.
“It was starting to look like very soon Latino candidates of choice would be a majority on the council,” Perales said. “And that’s the point at which the mayor announces following the Shelby decision, let’s change these seats back to at-large. The timing is not coincidental.”
If five districts were Hispanic-controlled, the mayor would no longer be a tie-breaking vote on issues which polarize the Latino and Anglo voters of Pasadena including the investment of community resources, Perales said. But with the change to an at-large system, Latinos get outvoted in every election.
“Any seat you convert to at-large will then be subject to the dilution of Latino voting strength,” Perales said. “Latinos are not the majority of voters in Pasadena so if you move that seat back over to at-large, [Latino-preferred candidates] are going to lose.”
The ballot initiative to change the electoral system to a mixed system narrowly passed in November 2013 by a margin of 79 votes out of 6,429 votes cast, according to the complaint which said that voting on the proposition was polarized along racial lines. The average voter turn-out in majority Hispanic precincts was just 9 percent, compared to twelve percent in the others.
“Clearly it was racism,” Pasadena Councilman Ornaldo Ybarra, one of two Hispanics on Pasadena’s eight-member council, told the AP about the electoral changes.
The suit names five Hispanic Pasadena residents as plaintiffs and asks for an injunction prohibiting future Pasadena City Council elections under the “hybrid election system.” The next city council election is scheduled for May.
In the year and a half since the Supreme Court ruling, a number of southern states have used the new freedom to pass discriminatory voting measures including additions at-large council seats, voter ID laws and changes to early voting and voter registration periods.
Other lawsuits across the country have targeted voting changes which have turned seats normally elected by minorities into at-large seats. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a similar suit last month accusing the Ferguson-Florissant School District, the district that includes Ferguson, Missouri, of discriminating against African American students by holding at-large elections in which the district’s entire population votes on each board member, so whites can out-vote African Americans in every election.
Both the Ferguson and Pasadena lawsuits challenge the changes under Section 2 of the VRA, which survived the Supreme Court’s decision throwing away many of the legislation’s provisions. Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act prohibits election rules that “result in denial or abridgment of the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.”
Voters in the town of Beaumont, Texas also narrowly approved a ballot initiative to change the electoral system to a mixed system using five single-member districts and two at-large districts in 2011. Initially, the U.S. Department of Justice was able to step in before the Shelby decision and rejected the changes. But after the Supreme Court took away the DOJ’s preclearance, non-African American voters in the town moved forward and were able to change the city council to include two at-large members.