- Jeremy Schwartz American-Statesman Staff
A federal judge’s ruling last week that the city of Pasadena tried to dilute the voting power of its fast-growing Latino population through the use of at-large council districts could change how Texas officials enforce voting rights laws in the state, though the case is likely to be appealed.
What’s more certain is that the decision serves as another reminder of the barriers to political power for Latinos in local government across the state.
An American-Statesman investigation in October found that more than 1.3 million Hispanics in Texas live in cities or counties with no Hispanic representation on their city council or commissioners court, disparities that remain high even when accounting for noncitizens.
In a state where Hispanics make up 38 percent of the population, only about 10 percent of Texas mayors and county judges are Hispanic, the analysis found. In 1994, Latinos made up 10 percent of county commissioner positions; today, the percentage has inched up just slightly to 13 percent — even though the state’s Hispanic population nearly doubled over that time.
The highest levels of underrepresentation are clustered in a rural swath of West Texas, through the High Plains region and into the Panhandle, though pockets of extreme underrepresentation dot the state.
In Medina County, just west of San Antonio, for example, all five county commissioners are white even though the county’s population is more than 50 percent Hispanic. Only one of nearly two dozen elected county posts is held by a Hispanic.
The investigation found that redistricting schemes, recall elections and resistance to implementing minority-supportive voting systems have contributed to low levels of Hispanic representation in local governments from Abilene to Guadalupe County.
The case in Pasadena centered on how residents elect their City Council members.
After the Voting Rights Act was amended in 1975 to explicitly cover Latinos, advocates and lawyers filed hundreds of lawsuits throughout the state seeking to transform at-large election systems — in which an entire city or jurisdiction votes on candidates — to a system of individual districts. The so-called single-member district system is meant to give minority groups, often clustered geographically, a better shot at electing candidates of their choice.
Pasadena had a single-member district government, and the city’s burgeoning Hispanic population was poised to claim a majority on the City Council when officials did away with two district seats and replaced them with at-large positions.
City officials were able to make the change after the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 struck down a section of the Voting Rights Act that required local entities to “preclear” changes in voting procedures — such as new district boundaries, changes in polling places or shifts in voting systems — with federal officials to make sure they don’t limit minority voting.
U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal effectively ordered Pasadena to re-enter the federal preclearance system. And while advocates have argued that attempts to circumvent the Voting Rights Act would proliferate without federal oversight, attorneys with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of local Latino residents, hope the order will serve as a warning to those contemplating similar changes.
The decision “is a clear warning to other jurisdictions that might seek to limit Latino voting power by taking advantage of the Supreme Court’s dismantling of the protections of preclearance,” Thomas A. Saenz, MALDEF president and general counsel, told the Houston Chronicle. “The decision is also a repudiation of those, including congressional leaders, who facilely assert that intentional vote discrimination no longer occurs and that the protections of preclearance are no longer needed.”