GALEO Challenges At-Large Voting in City of Gainesville
(APN) ATLANTA — The Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials (GALEO) is campaigning against the City of Gainesville’s current at-large voting process, which they argue violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by diluting the Latino vote.
Gainesville has five city council wards, another word for districts. However, unlike districts in Atlanta, Fulton County, and DeKalb County, Gainesville’s wards do not create district representation because all seats are citywide.
All residents, in the City of Gainesville, cast votes for candidates in all the districts; in other words, all Council seats are at-large.
Even though some districts have a majority of Latinos, the fact that White voters are more numerous in the at-large system this alters the make-up the Council, possibly resulting in the Latino and African American communities.
Proponents of district voting for Gainesville say it is more equitable. It would allow for community members to elect candidates of their choice in a district. It would also lead to greater accountability of City Council Members to the voters.
GALEO has tried to work with the Gainesville City Council for two years to resolve this matter and avoid litigation.
“We want to work this out through changes in the charter rather than through litigation. However, we are working diligently to ensure we have everything in place to file, in case we do have to file in this particular case,” Jerry Gonzalez, Executive Director, GALEO, told Atlanta Progressive News.
Three council seats are up for grabs this November 2015. They are Ruth Bruner (Ward 5), Myrtle Figueras (Ward 3), and Robert Hamrick (Ward 2).
“Current City Council members support the at-large voting process, which dilutes the Latino ability to elect candidates. We are recruiting Latino and non-Latino candidates who support the elimination of at-large voting. We want this to be a campaign issue and we are working closely with the African American community,” Gonzalez told APN.
Gainesville City Council released a long statement disputing that their voting system discriminates.
“We believe in the at-large voting system, not because ‘it is what we have always done,’ but we believe in the system because we feel it is right for Gainesville. The at-large voting system requires that every member of the City Council is accountable to every single citizen in Gainesville. Instead of posturing for what is best for “our district” we work together for what is best for the City of Gainesville. We believe that the voter should have a voice in choosing all five candidates at the polls, not just one,” the Gainesville Council said in the statement.
“To insinuate that the City discriminates against anyone, or as stated in The Times that the City, ‘has an ugly history of discrimination’ is hurtful and simply wrong. Our City has a reputation for being culturally inclusive – where we celebrate what makes us different and recognize what makes us the same. We are ‘One Community.’ We work together, play together and attend school together,” the Council said.
“In previous litigation, United States District Court Judge William O’Kelley found that the City of Gainesville’s at-large system was not maintained for discriminatory purposes and no evidence of racial bias in the voting community was shown,” the Council said.
“In his Order in the Johnson v. Hamrick case, he found that the overall evidence did not show racially polarized voting; that the city council members are not racists; that the city council members are responsive and that many of them had been supported by minorities; and that the court was convinced that members of the city council sincerely believe that the at-large election system is the best system for Gainesville,” the Council said.
There have indeed been other challenges to Gainesville’s at-large voting system over the years.
A group of African Americans filed a lawsuit that alleged Gainesville’s at-large electoral system violates Section 2 and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendment by diluting minority voting power.
The ruling in Johnson v. Hamrick has been challenged twice since the case was first decided back in 1996. (Hamrick II, 1999; Hamrick III, 2002).
Obviously the demographics of the city have changed over the years since the last lawsuit was filed challenging the at-large voting process.
Today, according to the recent U.S. Census, more than forty percent of the population in Gainesville is Hispanic, but this group is not represented in local government.
GALEO has worked tirelessly to educate, inform, and increase awareness of the at-large voting system and how it negatively affects Latinos. They have a goal to register 250 new eligible Latino voters to increase the power of the growing Latino electorate and to turn out the Latino vote in time for the 2015 election.
GALEO is also challenging the at-large voting system in the City of Dalton, Georgia.