The Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials said Tuesday it intends to file a federal lawsuit asserting Gainesville’s at-large voting system violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.
Gainesville City Council has said the system gives good representation to all citizens by allowing all residents to vote for each city representative. The positions of mayor and council seats for wards 1 and 4 are up for election in November.
The Latino group’s board met July 2 and decided to move forward with a lawsuit. GALEO Executive Director Jerry Gonzalez said the case would be significant, especially in light of the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision on Section 4 and the impact on Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
“This is going to be a historic case in the Southeast of the U.S. given what happened in the Supreme Court with the Voting Rights Act,” Gonzalez said. “These types of cases are going to become much more prevalent with minority communities looking at election changes that potentially discriminate, diminish the minority community’s ability to exercise their right to vote and influence the outcome of elections.”
That decision effectively put an end to the advance approval requirement that has been used to open polling places to minority voters in the nearly half-century since it was first enacted in 1965, unless Congress can come up with a new formula that meets “current conditions” in the U.S.
The group’s lawyers are working pro bono, but the activists will have to pay for expert analysis and reports to prove their case. They hope to raise $30,000 and file the lawsuit by Sept. 15.
The City Council gave its position on the dispute in a statement read by Gainesville Mayor Danny Dunagan in June.
“We recognise and appreciate the contributions that the Latino community has made to Gainesville so we think it’s important to further clarify why we believe the at-large voting system provides fair and equitable representation for all the city’s citizens,” Dunagan read.
The council’s statement referred to a 1996 federal court decision that the city’s at-large system was not discriminatory or intended to discriminate.
It also said that the council strongly disagrees with the Latino group’s claims and has asked for information that the group hasn’t provided.
“We’re very disappointed with the city,” Gonzalez said. “Our only recourse now is to go to court.”
GALEO is looking for plaintiffs for its case, Latino registered voters who feel they’ve been impacted by discrimination. Gonzalez said a recent series by Univision Atlanta exposed ongoing discriminatory practices. It is also looking for volunteers to staff phone banks, canvass neighborhoods and register voters.
The city and its attorney Robert Brinson have said it is mathematically impossible to have a district where the citizen voting age population is 50 percent Latino.
“It kind of bothers me that litigation is moving forward, not because you guys are pushing for it, but because (the City Council) is asking for it,” mayoral candidate Charles Alvarez said at the meeting. “And as regards to costs, the Fayette County case has cost Fayette County $250,000 just right now.
Fayette County has appealed a judge’s decision that ruled its at-large voting system discriminated against black voters.
GALEO has planned a fundraiser for Aug. 15 in Atlanta. The group also plans to have a fundraiser and voter registration drives in Gainesville. It is targeting 1,500 Latino voters and hopes to raise their voter participation.
The organization’s focus is on voter education and will not coordinate with election campaigns, Gonzalez said.