On Monday, the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) sued the City of Houston in federal court alleging that the city’s practice of electing five council members at-large, citywide, rather than in single-member districts is a violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.
LULAC contends that Houston’s at-large elections “dilute” the Latino’s community’s voting strength and deny them fair representation on city council. They point to Houston’s “racially polarized” elections, and claim that Latinos vote in a bloc for candidates of their preference while non-Latinos “vote as a bloc against Latino-preferred candidates” to deny them representation.
For more than a year LULAC has voiced frustration over the city’s at-large council seats. The group initially said they would lead a citizen petition effort to change the city charter to only allow for single-member districts. However, months ago they started talking about taking leading action instead.
“Latinos make up 44.5% of the city’s population, yet we have only one Latino out of 16 positions on a city council that controls a $5.7 billion annual budget.” said LULAC national president Domingo Garcia.
Only two Hispanics have ever won races for Houston City Council’s at-large seats since their creation in 1980 despite making up a “strong plurality or near majority of Houston’s total population.”
“Houston is the only major city left in Texas that lacks 100% single-member districts,” said Ivan Sanchez, one of the four plaintiffs in the suit.
Another plaintiff, Anthony Rios, said, “Every major city in Texas has abolished at-large city council seats because they are discriminatory. It is time that Houston joins the future by providing fair representation to all of its citizens.”
Houston LULAC’s redistricting chair, and Fox 26 political commentator Sergio Lira, said, “Making this change is not a favor but a right we have earned. LULAC is here to claim that right and trusts that the federal court will agree.”
Houston’s City Council’s at-large and single-member combination is relatively new with at-large only added within the past 40 years. But, the makeup of the city’s governing body is not unfamiliar to change. Since its incorporation in 1837, it has seen strong mayor, weak mayor, city commission, city manager, and again to its current strong mayor form of government.
In response to the suit, Mayor Sylvester Turner issued the following statement
The City believes its system of 11 single-member districts with 5 at-large districts has benefited its residents. At-large Council Members are engaged in and advocate for district issues. The City held numerous hearings regarding redistricting and solicited alternative plans. Its goal included providing an equal opportunity for all voters to elect candidates of their choice, preserve communities of interest, and avoid diluting the voting strength of any group of voters.The City expects that evidence presented in this lawsuit will support its adopted plan which is consistent with the City Charter.
LULAC’s suit comes less than a year before the city’s next municipal election.
Charles Blain is the President of Urban Reform institute, a think tank that focuses on free market solutions to urban issues and creating opportunity for all in America’s metropolitan areas. Charles has been published in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, the Houston Chronicle, the Hill, Wired, and other publications. He is a Fox 26 Houston (KRIV) regular political commentator and weekly panelist on Sunday talk show, What’s Your Point. He is also a regular guest speaking about local issues on I Heart Radio’s Pursuit of Happiness, The Michael Berry Show, and Houston’s Morning News w/ Jimmy Barrett & Shara Fryer.