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Latino group slams Gainesville’s voting setup

GALEO claims council’s at-large system violates Voting Right Act

POSTED: September 14, 2012 12:21 a.m.

The Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials is making its disdain for Gainesville’s at-large voting system for City Council official.

In a Aug. 21 letter to Gainesville Attorney James E. “Bubba” Palmour, a legal firm representing the organization, Federal & Hasson, says the current system of electing members to the board “diminishes and dilutes” Latinos’ ability to elect the candidate of their choice.

The Times obtained the letter from a blog on the Atlanta Journal Constitution’s website. GALEO’s executive director and City Manager Kip Padgett have confirmed the ongoing discussions.

Gainesville’s local election system allows voters citywide to elect representatives for each of the city’s five wards.City Council members have historically held that the system creates a council that uniformly represents all city residents and eliminates divisiveness.

GALEO sees it as an impediment to Latino voting power and says it may violate the Voting Rights Act.

“It is absolutely essential that Gainesville’s growing Latino population have an equal voice in the election of their candidates of choice,” the letter states.

In the letter, the attorney representing GALEO states that the voting system has been “abolished throughout Georgia with notable exceptions such as Forsyth County, the city of Gainesville and the city of Dalton.”

“It should be unnecessary for Gainesville’s citizens to be forced to resort to the expense of litigation in order to remove this obstacle to the exercise of their franchise,” the letter states. “However, if litigation is required, GALEO is a proper party to vindicate this plain violation of the voting rights of Gainesville’s citizens and GALEO is prepared to fulfill this role.”

Forsyth County no longer elects its commissioners countywide.

Jerry Gonzalez, GALEO’s executive director, said the association is also working with officials in Dalton to end at-large voting there.

He said Dalton Mayor David Pennington and another council member have expressed their desire to work with GALEO to change the voting system.

For the first time in 2011, council members approved a map of voting districts that specifically designated a ward with a voting-age population that was majority Latino. Two other districts — Ward 3 and Ward 4 — have a majority Latino population, but Latinos are not yet the majority of voting-age populations there.

But even with Latinos in the majority or plurality, the voting population in most Gainesville districts is likely to continue to be dominated by whites for several years (except in Ward 3, where black voters would make up about 42 percent of the voting population under the new maps).

While Ward 5 will be a majority Latino district under the new ward maps with 55.17 percent of its voting population, the Latino population would likely make up less than 18 percent of registered voters there.

A letter from the attorney representing GALEO says the numbers of Latinos in Gainesville “are virtually unprecedented” in recent cases involving allegations of voter dilution. And though Latinos accounted for in the city’s wards may not be eligible to vote, courts have previously held that a “majority is still a majority.”

GALEO met with Gainesville officials on the issue in January and February, according to the August letter. Gainesville Mayor Danny Dunagan did not return two calls Friday requesting comment on the issue.

Padgett said he turned the letter over to Palmour in August and hasn’t heard an update since. Longtime councilman George Wangemann said council members discussed the issue recently.

“We’re all pretty much on the same page, being very satisfied with the form of government that we have, being an at-large system,” Wangemann said. “We don’t really want that to change, and I think the basic reason is we don’t feel the system’s broken, and therefore, don’t fix it.”

Rather than seeing a benefit for Latino voting power by changing the city’s voting system to one in which council members are voted on only by districts residents, Wangemann said he sees a “downside for the rest of Gainesville if the system does change.”

“I think elected officials would tend to fight for their own little districts instead of looking after the good of the whole city,” Wangemann said. “So I just don’t see what anybody would really benefit from going to a district system.”

“If there was some clear-cut benefit to everybody, I think we would be more open minded on this topic.”

It’s an argument that’s been echoed by other members of the council as their system has been challenged over the years. In the 1990s and early 2000s, the City Council prevailed in court when residents said the at-large voting system disenfranchised black voters under the Voting Rights Act.

But Gonzalez said federal law that guides electoral processes “is not stagnant.”

“With the changing demographics, different standards apply,” Gonzalez said. “We feel that the situation has changed dramatically since that lawsuit.”

For one, as the association’s attorney lists in his letter to the city attorney, “with respect to the Latino community ... the situation is quite different from the analysis of the African-American community” in the 1990s-era court case.

Gonzalez said GALEO wants the system changed before the next election, and says he thinks council members here are “open and ready and willing to listen” to the association’s argument.

“Ultimately, we shouldn’t have a process that undermines the ability of members of the community to select candidates of their choice,” Gonzalez said.


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