|U.S. Department of Justice |
Civil Rights Division
|Office of the Assistant Attorney General||Washington, DC 20530|
| ||September 24, 2001|
Cheryl T. Mehl, Esq.
Schwartz & Eichelbaum
800 Brazos Street
Austin, Texas 78701
This refers to the change in the method of election from single-member districts to an at-large system employing cumulative voting, its implementation schedule, and the subsequent revision of the implementation schedule as subsequently revised for the Haskell Consolidated Independent School District in Haskell, Knox, and Throckmorton Counties, Texas, submitted to the Attorney General pursuant to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. 1973c. We received your responses to our February 5, 2001, request for additional information on July 25, and September 5, 6, 7, and 12, 2001.
We have considered carefully the information you have provided, as well as Census data, and comments and information from other interested parties. According to the 2000 Census, the Haskell Consolidated Independent School District [the district] has a population of 3,845, of whom 19.7 percent are Hispanic and 3.2 percent are black persons.
Our analysis of the district's electoral history indicates that under the current method of election, which utilizes seven single-member districts, Hispanic voters have been able to elect candidates of their choice to office in at least one district. We note that this election method resulted from the settlement of federal litigation claiming that the previous method, an at-large system with staggered terms, violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. League of United Latin American Citizens, District 5 LULAC v. Haskell Consolidated Independent School Districts, No. 193-CV-0178(C) (N.D. Tex. Oct. 21, 1994). The school district implemented the single-member district system, which contained one district with a Hispanic population majority, in 1995.
Under a cumulative voting system, voters are allocated a number of votes equal to the number of offices that are being contested at that particular election and can assign all of their votes to one candidate. Thus, a candidate supported by voters who are a minority of the electorate can win with support from fewer voters than in a traditional at-large election. A statistical measure, known as the "threshold of exclusion," can determine the lowest percentage of support from a single group that ensures their candidate will win no matter what other voters do. This level of support is 33 percent in a two-seat race and 25 percent in a three-seat race. Thus, for Hispanic voters to elect a candidate of their choice in a three-seat contest, they must either constitute 25 percent of the electorate or be able to count on enough non-Hispanic votes to reach that threshold. The school district has conceded that it will be virtually impossible for minority voters to elect at least one candidate of their choice under the board's proposed method of election without non-Hispanic cross-over voting. Accordingly, we have examined the ability of candidates supported by the Hispanic community to attract non-Hispanic votes in past elections.
Only one Hispanic candidate had been elected to the board of trustees prior to the implementation of single-member districts in 1995. From 1981 to 1994, there were five attempts by four Hispanic candidates to win a seat on the school board. Based on the information provided by the district, in only one instance has a Hispanic candidate's vote total exceeded the threshold of exclusion. In the 1993 contest for Place 1 a Hispanic candidate's vote total exceeded the threshold by only 0.8 percentage points. Accordingly, based on the information available, it appears that candidates favored by the Hispanic community have not consistently received significant non-Hispanic cross-over voting, much less at the levels claimed by the district.
Given the demographics of the school district and apparent voting patterns within it, the jurisdiction has not carried its burden that the proposed change will not significantly reduce the ability of minority voters to elect candidates of their choice to the school board.
We have also examined the reasons proffered by the district in support of the change, such as allegedly low voter turnout during the time that it utilized single-member districts as compared to purportedly higher turnout under the at-large system. An analysis of past voter turnout information does not support the board's position. For example, in May 2001, the board claims that less than one percent of the registered voters in District 1 cast a ballot. A closer examination indicates that the candidate for that position was unopposed and the election would have been cancelled, with the candidate being sworn into office, had there not been another office on the ballot being contested.
Moreover, in both the Section 5 submission and at the February 10, 2000, public hearing, school board officials claimed that voter turnout was higher in at-large elections. The district cited the 1993 election, calculating that 1,465 persons voted, a 64.5 percent turnout rate, and, the 1994 election in which 1,863 persons, or 73 percent of the registered voters voted, as evidence of the need to return to at-large elections. This assertion does not withstand close scrutiny. In both of these elections, two numbered posts were up for election and a voter could vote for both posts. According to the 1993 election returns, there were 730 votes for Place I candidates and 735 votes for Place II candidates for a total of 1,465. The 1994 figure of 1,863 is the result of similar calculation. The only way to arrive at the district's numbers is to assume that every voter who cast a ballot for one post chose not to vote for the second office. We do not believe that such an assumption is warranted here.
Under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, the submitting authority has the burden of showing that a submitted change has neither a discriminatory purpose nor a discriminatory effect. Georgia v. United States, 411 U.S. 526 (1973); see also the Procedures for the Administration of Section 5, 28 C.F.R. 51.52. In light of the considerations discussed above, I cannot conclude that your burden has been sustained in this instance. Therefore, on behalf of the Attorney General, I must object to the change to cumulative voting with staggered terms.
In its request for preclearance, the district notes that if, in fact, the change is retrogressive, individuals in the minority community would be free either to petition the board to change the method of election or to institute further litigation. This suggestion ignores the essential purpose of Section 5, which is to ensure that gains achieved by minority voters not be subverted by retrogressive changes. Accordingly, we can not accede to the district's request.
We note that under Section 5 you have the right to seek a declaratory judgment from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia that the proposed changes neither have the purpose nor will have the effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race, color, or membership in a language minority group. See 28 C.F.R. 51.44. In addition, you may request that the Attorney General reconsider the objection. See 28 C.F.R. 51.45. However, until the objection is withdrawn or a judgment from the District of Columbia Court is obtained, the changes continue to be legally unenforceable. Clark v. Roemer, 500 U.S. 646 (1991); 28 C.F.R. 51.10.
The Attorney General will make no determination regarding the submitted implementation schedule because it is dependant upon the objected to change in the method of election.
We understand that the school district employs Spanish language election procedures. "Spanish language election procedures" refers to such matters as the procedures for translating election-related information and materials (e.g., notices, advertisements, informational pamphlets, ballots) into Spanish (include examples of such documents), procedures for confirming the accuracy of the translations, and the procedures used to provide oral assistance or information in Spanish at polling places, early voting locations, as well as publicity in Spanish regarding the availability of Spanish language assistance. See Interpretive Guidelines: Implementation of the Provisions of the Voting Rights Act Regarding Language Minority Groups, 28 C.F.R., Part 55 (copy enclosed).
Our records fail to show that this change affecting voting has been submitted to the United States District Court for the District of Columbia for judicial review or to the Attorney General for administrative review as required by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. 1973c. If our information is correct, it is necessary that this change either be brought before the District Court for the District of Columbia or submitted to the Attorney General for a determination that it does not have the purpose and will not have the effect of discriminating on account of race, color, or membership in a language minority group. Changes which affect voting are legally unenforceable without Section 5 preclearance. Clark v. Roemer, 500 U.S. 646 (1991); Procedures for the Administration of Section 5 (28 C.F.R. 51.10).
To enable us to meet our responsibility to enforce the Voting Rights Act, please inform us of the action Haskell Consolidated Independent School District plans to take concerning this matter. If you have any questions, you should call Ms. Judybeth Greene (202-616-2350), an attorney in the Voting Section. Refer to File No. 2001-2924 in any response to this letter so that your correspondence will be channeled properly.
Ralph F. Boyd, Jr.
Assistant Attorney General
Civil Rights Division