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Community divisions surface in discussion of single-member districts

Tuesday, May 17, 2011 by Elizabeth Pagano

Divisions within some Austin communities came to light last week – even before any lines are drawn on a map – during a briefing and discussion on redistricting as it applies to single-member districts.


Council Member Sheryl Cole continued to express concern about the impact of single-member districts on the African-American community.


Austin’s history of voting for minority Council members at large, combined with population shifts in historically black neighborhoods due to gentrification, have raised serious questions about whether redistricting would, in fact, benefit minorities in today’s Austin.


“I know the African-American community is very, very divided,” said Cole. “There is a large section of the community that remembers the Civil Rights Act and associates going to single-member districts as creating more representation on the Council because, by and large, that is what happened in the South.


“There is another section of the community that is very aware of the dispersion that has happened in the City of Austin and recognizes that if they do not live in a particular section of Austin, they will not have the opportunity to vote for the African-American candidate that they want,” continued Cole.


Attorney Sydney Falk with Bickerstaff Heath Delgado Acosta presented a brief overview of the laws and standards that apply to redistricting at this past Council meeting as a part of this process. He pointed to Austin Independent School District’s Board of Trustees, which is comprised of two at-large members and seven single-member district members as an “object lesson.” Despite the geographic restrictions, there continues to be minority representation on the board in both the at-large and district positions.


City Council continues to take steps towards the creation of single-member districts for the city, something that voters have rejected six times previously. The move has the strong backing of Mayor Lee Leffingwell and some others on the Council.


Though the change from a Council that is elected at large to one that includes single-member districts would be better termed “districting,” the historical and political implications of the process tend to set voters on edge, as Council Member Bill Spelman noted.


“One of the reasons why we have had so many failed attempts at establishing single-member districts over the years… we go through the redistricting process at the state legislature and it

leaves a lot of people with a bad taste in their mouth,” said Spelman.


Falk presented the primary principles of redistricting to the Council. Before the city is permitted to implement districts, they must get approval from the Department of Justice, which determines whether the newly created boundaries are equitable based on population distribution (Council Members should each represent similar numbers of people) and the affect of the new districts on minorities and the relative strength of their vote.


As a general rule, Falk explained, the Department of Justice tends to view the movement from an at-large system to a single-member system favorably, as it is considered more progressive.


In Austin, however, it may not be that simple.


“The complication, if there is one, is sorting out the fact that Austin, as a community, has had a fairly demonstrative history of electing minorities to positions at large throughout the community and that, I think, camouflages a bit the principle that I am describing,” said Falk.

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