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Citizens group sees African-American plurality in 10-1 districting plan

Monday, July 9, 2012 by Josh Rosenblatt

The group responsible for a petition to put a 10-1 single-member district plan on the ballot in November claims it is the best option to create a district where African-Americans would constitute a plurality of voting-age citizens.

Austinites for Geographic Representation contend that any plan with fewer than 10 districts (i.e., the competing 8-2-1 hybrid plan, which is favored by four City Council members) would not allow for a plurality.

At the June 28 City Council meeting, AGR members showed up at City Hall with boxes filled with signed petition forms, pushing Council members to support “the people’s plan.” Council voted 5-2 to put a 10-1 plan mirroring AGR’s plan on the ballot. Still, the group has opted to continue with its petition drive. Meanwhile, since the hybrid plan received only four votes, it must be reconsidered for second and third readings at the next scheduled Council meeting on Aug. 2.  

Up to this point, advocates on both sides of the debate, not to mention city staff and outside counsel Syd Falk, have referenced primarily Voting Age Population numbers when talking about the viability of a so-called African-American Opportunity District. Such a district would be required for any proposal to get Department of Justice Approval under the Voting Rights Act. Estimates for the percentage of African-Americans making up the voting age population of a district in the 10-1 plan have ranged from the low 20s to the very low 30s. None of those estimates would constitute a plurality.

However, according to maps drawn up by AGR member and longtime political consultant Peck Young, African-Americans in a strong African-American district would make up 38.6 percent of the Citizens Voting Age Population, which counts only those residents of a district who are citizens. That would not only pass muster with the Department of Justice but would also provide the best chance for an African-American City Council member in a 10-1 system.

“Under the 10-1 plan, we can draw a district where African-Americans are a plurality of voters,” said Young, a long-time political campaign strategist and director of the Center for Public Policy and Political Studies at Austin Community College. “Any hybrid plan would make African-Americans the second, if not third, largest ethnicity in a district.”

Though the Citizens Voting Age Population category is often referenced when speaking about the number of illegal immigrants living in a voting area, the number simply delineates citizenship. Plenty of people living in Austin, many of them Hispanics, live here legally but, due to a lack of citizenship, cannot vote.

“This doesn’t have a damn thing to do with illegality,” Young said. “Just citizenship.”

To political consultant, and 8-2-1 supporter, David Butts, however, AGR’s claims don’t take into account the overwhelming trend toward a smaller African-American population in the city and a larger Hispanic population. Regardless of the numbers now, Butts says, the African-American population is only going to diminish, along with their voting power in a single-member system.

“If the number is 38 percent, that’s only going to be there temporarily,” Butts told In Fact Daily. “The trend is toward more Hispanics and fewer blacks. They ignore that fact. The trend line is clearly against the black community.”

Butts believes the hybrid system provides the best hope for an African-American opportunity district because it makes sure more white voters are in that district, meaning African-Americans have a group with whom to build coalitions to ensure African-American representation. Without those coalitions, African-Americans candidates would struggle against Hispanic candidates, especially in the future, as the Hispanic population continues to rise.

“What they’re selling is something that really won’t hold up, unless you build in some safeguards,” Butts said. “The surest way to ensure African-American representation from a district is to make sure there are enough Anglo voters in the district to align with African-American voters. The 8-2-1 plan offers a better chance of that down the road.”

But Young said the Citizens Voting Age Population numbers bear out AGR’s claim that the 10-1 plan is the only plan that will provide an African-American opportunity district and adhere to Department of Justice requirements. Peck said Butts’ reservations have less to do with the viability of African-American representation than with the continuation of the current at-large Council system.

“This (10-1 plan) is gonna solve this problem for the next decade,” Young said. “And pontificating about the long-term ethnic makeup of the city doesn’t change that. The only thing David is worried about is the perpetuation of his and his fellow political consultants’ power at City Hall. By putting the hybrid plan on the ballot, he’s trying to see to it that nothing passes. It’s a scheme to try to confuse people, to perpetuate a system that gives him and his fellow consultants an inordinate amount of power at City Hall and that ensures that we don’t have a better system.”

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