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Proposed Council districts could hamper African-American representation

Friday, June 10, 2011 by Josh Rosenblatt

Council members got their first look at what a city map might look like if a new single-member district proposal wins voter approval next November. And what it showed is just how difficult it would be to ensure African-American Council representation.


On April 28, Council passed a resolution calling for the development of amendments to the city charter and calling on staff to present within 90 days a plan and a map for single-member districts. Yesterday, Sidney Falk, a partner with Bickerstaff Heath Delgado Acosta, LLP, the law firm engaged by the city to assist staff with the drafting of charter amendment language and redistricting draft plans, presented initial drafts for four different plans featuring six single-member-district Council members, two at-large members, and an at-large mayor.


Any single-member plan would have to follow federal one-person-one-vote rules, which calls for the population of each district to be within 10 percent of any other. In Austin, that means approximately 132,778 people per district.


The four draft plans, though differing somewhat in terms of the layout of districts in the city’s center and northwest, are consistent in terms of their delineations of two particular districts: District 1, the strongly African-American district in the northeast, and District 2, the strongly Hispanic district in the southeast.


“The basic premise I started with was to develop as strong a Hispanic district and as strong an African-American district as could be constructed,” said Falk.


In all four of the presented plans, African-Americans will make up only about 23 percent of the voting age population of District 1. Hispanics will make up about 38 percent of the voting age population and whites will make up about 31 percent.


By comparison, in District 2 – staff’s “Hispanic District” – Hispanics will make up 61 percent of the voting age population, 26 percent whites, and 9 percent African-Americans.


According to Falk, 23 percent is “essentially the limit of African-American voting strength you can build into a single district.” In other words, African-Americans will be nowhere near a majority voting population in any single district that abides by the federal guidelines, meaning prospects for an African-American Council member would probably be dimmed in a single-member system.


African-Americans make up about 7.5 percent of the city’s total voting-age population.


Council Member Sheryl Cole, who has expressed concern about the city moving to a single-member system on the grounds that it could decrease African-American representation on Council, told In Fact Daily she is withholding judgment until more information comes in.


“We are still in the early stages,” she said. “I am concerned about the actual percentage of African-Americans in District 1. It is my understanding that the raw percentages are not dispositive, as voting participation is also a factor. I am awaiting additional information but am still committed to sending the issue to the voters.”

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