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Trial set for redistricting case that could upend city elections

Wednesday, April 13, 2022 by Jo Clifton

Plaintiffs who say that they have been disenfranchised by the city’s redistricting process will be watching carefully on May 17, when the suit filed against Austin Mayor Steve Adler and his 10 City Council colleagues is set for trial. Also watching carefully will be prospective Council candidates in districts 2, 4, 6, 7 and 10, which are not currently scheduled for an election this November. Council members in those districts were elected in 2020 for a term that runs through 2024.

Elections are staggered under the city charter. This year, the mayor’s seat and elections for Council districts 1, 3, 5, 8 and 9 will be held in November. If the plaintiffs win this lawsuit, all Council seats will be on the ballot.

Attorney Bill Aleshire, who filed the suit, expects it will end up in the Texas Supreme Court. But time is of the essence. The lawsuit notes that Council adopted an order on Aug. 9, 2018, calling for an election on Nov. 6, 2018. In 2020, the November election was called on Aug. 13. In a plea for a speedy process, the lawsuit says, “To avoid interference with the November election, and to be fair to all who might wish to be a candidate, judicial resolution of the issues raised in this lawsuit must occur quickly and reach the Texas Supreme Court.”

As the lawsuit explains, the city charter requires redistricting every 10 years. During the redistricting process, Aleshire said more than 34,000 residents were moved from one district to another. Of that number, he said “22,762 are what I call disenfranchised voters.”

One example of such a voter is plaintiff Scooter Cheatham, who voted in District 1 in 2018, but was moved to District 4 as a result of redistricting. The lawsuit notes that 5,025 voters were moved in the opposite direction to districts 1, 8 or 9. They will be able to vote this year, even though they voted just two years ago in a different district, while voters such as Cheatham will have to wait six years. “That’s not equal protection under the law,” Aleshire said. “That’s the crux of the lawsuit.”

Since District 4 is not on the November ballot, Cheatham will not have an opportunity to vote for his representative on Council for four years. The same is true of voters reassigned from another district into districts 2, 4, 6, 7 and 10, according to the suit.

The city has filed a response denying it can be sued in such an instance.

The recent election to replace Council Member Greg Casar was held under the old District 4 map, so Cheatham did not get to participate in the election won by new Council Member Chito Vela. However, Aleshire said that situation is not covered by the lawsuit.

Amanda Rios and Monica Guzmán both ran unsuccessfully against Vela in January’s special election and are ready to jump into another District 4 race if the plaintiffs prevail in the suit. They have filed affidavits making clear their intentions to run again if given the chance.

Kyle Nigro has designated a campaign treasurer and filed an affidavit saying he would like to run for the District 2 seat, but his campaign is unable to collect donations until the legal matter is settled. Likewise, Sandy Marger has filed an affidavit indicating his intention to run for the District 6 seat if the lawsuit results in a win for the plaintiffs.

Wesley Weaver would like to be a candidate for the District 7 Council seat and has filed an appointment of campaign treasurer with the city. He has also provided an affidavit for the lawsuit, which like the other affidavits says, “without a final decision in this case by the Texas Supreme Court, I am being disadvantaged every day in trying to pursue my campaign until a final decision is made as to whether this race will be on the November 8th ballot.”

Becky McMillian has also filed a campaign treasurer appointment document with the city clerk, saying she wishes to run for Council in District 10. Like the other hopeful candidates, McMillian urges a speedy resolution to the lawsuit.

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