|U.S. Department of Justice |
Civil Rights Division
|Office of the Assistant Attorney General||Washington, DC 20530|
| ||August 12, 2002|
Wallace Shaw, Esquire
P.O. Box 3073
Freeport, Texas 77542-1273
Dear Mr. Shaw:
This refers to the procedures for conducting the May 4, 2002, special city charter amendment election and the change in the method of electing city council members from districts to at large for the City of Freeport in Brazoria County, 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 May 14, 2002, request for additional information through July 31, 2002.
With regard to the special election, the Attorney General does not interpose any objection to the specified change. However, we note that Section 5 expressly provides that the failure of the Attorney General to object does not bar subsequent litigation to enjoin the enforcement of the change. See the Procedures for the Administration of Section 5 (28 C.F.R. 51.41).
As to the change to at-large elections with numbered positions, we have carefully considered the information you have provided, as well as census data, comments and information from other interested parties, and other information, including the city's previous submission of the adoption of the current districting system for the election of council members. Based on our analysis of the information you have provided, on behalf of the Attorney General, I am compelled to object to the submitted change in the method of election.
According to the 2000 Census, the city has a total population of 12,708, of whom 6,614 (52.0 percent) are Hispanic and 1,696 (13.3 percent) are black persons. Hispanic residents comprise 47.3 percent, and black residents 12.3 percent, of the city's voting age population. Approximately 29 percent of the city's registered voters are Spanish-surnamed individuals.
Until 1992, the city elected its four-member council on an at-large basis. In that year it began to use the single-member district system, which it had adopted as part of a settlement of voting rights litigation challenging the at-large system. Under the subsequent single-member district method of election, minority voters have demonstrated the ability to elect candidates of choice in at least two districts, Wards A and D. The city now proposes to reinstitute the at-large method of election. Our analysis shows that the change will have a retrogressive effect on the ability of minority voters to elect a candidate of their choice.
Elections in the city are marked by a pattern of racially polarized voting. Under the city's previous use of at-large elections, no Hispanic-preferred candidates were successful until 1990. In that election, one such candidate narrowly won office when several Anglo-supported candidates split the vote. In contrast, a Hispanic-preferred candidate won over significant Anglo opposition in 1992 in the first election held under the single-member district system. Since then, three other minority-preferred candidates have been successful in their wards. However, minority voters remain unable to elect their candidates of choice in municipal at-large elections. Thus, a return to an electoral system where all council offices are elected on an at-large basis will result in a retrogression in their ability to exercise the electoral franchise that they enjoy currently. A voting change has a discriminatory effect if it will lead to a retrogression in the position of members of a racial or language minority group (i.e., will make members of such a group worse off than they had been before the change) with respect to their opportunity to exercise the electoral franchise effectively. Reno v. Bossier Parish School Board, 528 U.S. 320, 328 (2000); Beer v. United States, 425 U.S. 130, 140-42 (1976).
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 in the method of election.
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 change neither has 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 submitted change continues to be legally unenforceable. Clark v. Roemer, 500 U.S. 646 (1991); 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 the City of Freeport plans to take concerning this matter. If you have any questions, you should call Mr. Robert Lowell (202-514-3539), an attorney in the Voting Section.
J. Michael Wiggins
Acting Assistant Attorney General