One person, one vote was the theme at the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials meeting Tuesday evening in Gainesville.
It was GALEO’s first public meeting of the Voting Rights Committee. Its purpose was to explain to residents how the city’s at-large voting system dilutes the votes of districts with majority Hispanic populations and denies them the opportunity to elect leaders of their choice.
The city’s system allows all residents to vote for the representative in each ward. Robert Brinson, the city’s attorney, said in a 2012 letter to R. Keegan Federal Jr., GALEO’s attorney, that the Hispanic population isn’t large enough or geographically compact enough to elect candidates “of its choice,” and that the current system provides good and equitable representation to all city residents.
GALEO also released its preliminary data on the city’s Hispanic electorate, which it believes would convince a judge that the system violates the federal Voting Rights Act.
“Minorities have been denied an equal opportunity to participate in the political process to elect representatives of their choice,” GALEO Executive Director Jerry Gonzalez said. “It’s their choice whether the candidates are Latino are not. That’s not the case here.”
Gainesville City Councilman George Wangemann was welcomed by the more than a dozen people in attendance.
The City Council, through Brinson, has sparred with the group for years over the voting system and the analysis both sides have produced. Brinson said last week that the city refused to make its findings public or meet with GALEO officials until the group first released its findings.
Wangemann said the city doesn’t want to go to court because it wouldn’t be good for the city or the taxpayer. He said he has personally gone out of his way to reach out to the Hispanic population.
GALEO retained expert Matt Barreto, director of the Washington Institute for the Study of Ethnicity and Race in the state of Washington, to do its analysis.
His findings show that city Wards 3, 4 and 5 have majority Hispanic populations, based on 2010 census numbers, and have large populations of voting-age residents. It also showed that minorities are voting differently than the majority population.
Wangemann said he’s keeping an open mind, but the Hispanic population needs to be more involved in the community. Hispanic residents rarely come to city events and service projects, he said.
The promotion of events is generally in English, not Spanish, others pushed back.
“We’re all people,” Wangemann said. “We’re all God’s children.”"
The position of mayor and two City Council seats are up for election this year.
The meeting drew leaders in the African-American community, too. Former Hall County Commissioner Ashley Bell said, as a lawyer, the city’s legal case is weak. He said he’s trying to encourage both groups to compromise, with maybe a combination of single-district-voting wards and at-large wards.
“I feel like this should be about building bridges,” Bell said. “We’ve come too far in Gainesville to go back to the sort of rhetoric that divides us, with side of town against the other.”
Gonzalez said GALEO could have filed a lawsuit in 2011, but it didn’t because it wants to avoid litigation. He said he expects the city to release its findings publicly in the next few weeks.
This is the first at-large voting system challenge for Latinos in the southeastern U.S., he said.