Voting rights battle in Pasadena

Pasadena is in a voting rights fight over how the city’s Hispanics get to vote for city council members.  Former Mayor Johnny Isbell had the city’s electoral map redrawn, replacing two of the eight city council districts with at-large seats elected by the entire city. Hispanic voters challenged the map in court, saying it undercuts their ability to elect representative council members.

Bob Stein, political science professor at Rice University, points out that the redistricting was made possible by a partial relaxing of the federal Voting Rights Act.  “Section 5 was overturned by the Supreme Court several years ago,” he says.  “This gave a real opening to a lot of jurisdictions, Pasadena in particular, to adopt at-large forms of representation, which many have claimed in the past dilute minority, African-American, [and] Hispanic representation.”

Stein says it’s a matter of how the numbers break down.  “If you have 20 percent of the voter pool [minority], you will never win a single at-large election,” he explains.  “But if your 20 percent in the city of Pasadena translates, let’s say, into 80 percent in some geographic areas, single-member districts, then you’ll get some representation.”

By contrast, Stein says, “At-large elections only reward the majority and over-reward them by giving them all the seats that might be on a city council or school district board.”  Minority voting is effectively stifled under this plan.

A Houston-based federal judge found that Pasadena had violated the Voting Rights Act.  Stein comments,  “The Pasadena case clearly showed an example of where going to single-member district representation had increased minority representation, and going away from it reduced the number of, in this case, Hispanics who were elected.”  The city has appealed the ruling.

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