The Supreme Court’s ruling on the Voting Rights Act

The Voting Rights Act of 1965, re-authorized by Congress in 2006, was dramatically weakened on June 24th by a 5-4 Court decision. Immediately after this ruling, Texas officials announced that the “Voter ID” law passed in 2011 was immediately in effect. This disenfranchised over 744,000 registered Texas voters who don’t have drivers licenses.

  • Grassroots organizations have responded with a very helpful website, where any Texas voter can find out if and how they have been affected. It offers to help affected voters get the proper ID. Please visit GotIDTexas and tell people you know about this website.
  • Austin’s new city council system will be affected. Redistricting expert Steve Bickerstaff explains the impact in an article he wrote (click here) for The Austin Bulldog.

Austinites can respond right now by becoming Deputy Voter Registrars. This requires about an hour of training, which is offered by the Travis County Tax Assessor-Collector’s office. Click here for more information.

Press Conference on redistricting – October 24, 2012

Remarks by LWV Austin –

Fellow voters, let’s get this right the first time and vote YES on Prop 3, the only plan that requires an Independent Citizen’s Redistricting Commission to draw city council districts.

In the view of the League of Women Voters of the Austin Area, an Independent Citizen’s Redistricting Commission, or ICRC, is an ESSENTIAL part of our change to fairer system of city representation. This view is based on decades of advocating for increased citizen participation in the redistricting process.

When the Austin League first heard about the ICRC in Prop 3 last year, we were at the same time lobbying the Texas Legislature to draw a fair, ungerrymandered Congressional map for Texas. We were not alone — numerous other groups were calling for the same thing. The result of citizen and organizations advocating for fairness was that cynical Texas Legislators carved Travis County into 5 Congressional districts. This is what happens when political consultants are involved in redistricting.

The Texas Legislature is not alone in its cynicism about redistricting. The League of Women Voters of the United States has long advocated for transparency and citizen participation in the process. In recent years, several state Leagues have successfully spearheaded reforms to overhaul broken redistricting processes, encourage the adoption of clear redistricting criteria and increase public participation opportunities. Across the country, the League of Women Voters is working to change politically-controlled redistricting systems into what Austin voters can choose right now by voting for Prop 3.

Austin voters who listen very carefully to the opponents of Prop 3 will recognize the sound of special interests that are desperate to maximize their control over city politics. This sounds the same whether it comes from Washington, DC, the State Capitol or downtown Austin. Can they be serious when they make the ridiculous claim that having a broad base of support is a liability?

It should be little surprise that voters have voiced their distrust of every previous Geographic Representation plan suggested by a sitting Council. We’ve been burned too many times by state politicians who can’t seem to resist picking their own voters and we’ve never had any assurance that the same thing would not happen in city politics.

Until now.

On the current ballot sits Prop 3, a proposal that came from the citizens themselves.

Average Austinites decided on the number of districts Austin needs.
Average Austinites decided that we had to have an Independent Citizen’s Redistricting Commission.
Average Austinites formed a coalition, created Prop 3, and put it the ballot.

Voters know that collectively, we’re pretty smart when we take the time to talk and listen to one another, which is the process that brought Prop 3 to today’s ballot.

When critical tasks are performed BY the people, they are performed FOR the people. The only way to ensure a fair redistricting process is to have it done by people who don’t have a direct vested interest. “We the People” must be kept in charge of it. So let’s get this right the first time and vote YES on Prop 3 and NO on Prop 4.

Our Op-Ed on Proposition 3

League of Women Voters of the Austin Area (LWVAA)   Supports Proposition 3 but not Proposition 4

Austinites will soon have an opportunity to change the city for the better. Proposition 3 would bring a fairer, more representative system of electing our City Council members by changing our current at-large system, where every member represents the entire city, to a district system. Prop 3 divides the city into ten districts. Only candidates who live in each district can run for that district’s place on City Council. The concept behind Prop 3 was developed by a grassroots group of Austinites who listened to a wide variety of viewpoints before deciding on a representation system that will work for all of Austin. After agreeing on the basics, they brought in legal experts to hammer out details. This is how democracy is supposed to work.

There is another, similar-sounding measure on the ballot. City Council placed Prop 4 on the ballot after Prop 3 earned its slot from a citizen’s petition drive. Prop 4 calls for eight districts and retains two at-large places. This “hybrid” system appeals to some, but we have concerns about it.

Prop 4’s use of only eight districts makes it less likely than Prop 3 to meet the requirements of the federal Voting Rights Act. Any change Austin makes to its city council representation system will be subject to judicial review under this law. With two more districts, Prop 3 makes it easier for minorities to elect a candidate of choice since the concentration of minorities will be higher in the smaller districts it stipulates. We don’t want a federal court intervening in how we elect our city council, which is what happened in 1991 when a federal court found racial discrimination in Dallas’s representation system.

Prop 4 also cedes control of redistricting to elected council members, where Prop 3 assigns this task to an Independent Citizens’ Redistricting Commission (ICRC). The ICRC is a panel of 14 volunteers who are required to have no recent connection with City Hall. To prevent city council districts being drawn like the divisive, partisan Congressional maps drawn by the Texas Legislature in 2011 (which were rejected by a federal court), Prop 3 requires that only individuals with no vested interest be allowed to draw district boundaries. Prop 3 also limits redistricting to once every 10 years or in the case of a court order. Under Prop 4, the City Council itself could redraw districts in mid-decade with minimal justification.

LWVAA has been calling for change to Austin’s at-large place system since the early 1970’s when it was first implemented and Austin’s population was 200,000 (today it’s about 800,000). Since then, voters in the same, small section of Austin have elected over half of our city council members and most of our mayors. City Council campaigns focus their attention in this area because that’s where people vote. People vote in those areas because that’s where candidates live and where they campaign. It’s a vicious circle that will only be broken if we change to district representation.

The measure in Prop 3 was created by Austinites for Geographic Representation (AGR), a grassroots coalition that includes all political parties, all parts of the city, all races, and all ages. This group has worked incessantly over the past year to educate Austinites and to encourage public discourse about this important matter. In a city renowned for political bickering, AGR brought together political opponents who were willing to listen to reason and agree on a plan that makes sense for all of Austin. Prop 3’s list of supporters is long and surprisingly diverse.

You may recall that this issue has been placed in front of voters before. But never has a districting proposal been so thoroughly vetted by so many Austinites. This is a “stamp of approval” that is very persuasive to civic-minded organizations like LWVAA.

LWVAA wants a city council representation system that makes city government accessible to all Austinites. Residents of other cities that have changed from at-large to districted representation report greater involvement in city government. They also report that “grassroots” candidates, who would never have even run in an at-large race, are winning.

Collectively, we make pretty sound decisions when we take the time to carefully consider options and listen to one another – including those with whom we disagree. That’s the process that created Prop 3, and we expect it is the process that will pass Prop 3. LWVAA calls on all Austinites to vote for Prop 3 and to spread the word about this most important issue.

Stewart Snider,
League of Women Voters of the Austin Area

Registering voters at ACC

LWV Austin has launched another voter registration campaign. This time, we’re registering people at ACC. The deadline to register to vote in Texas is October 9, 2012.

“A lot of attention is paid to candidate’s biographies and campaign trail quips. But the real stakes of this election are much higher,” said Carol Olewin, Co-President of the League of Women Voters of Austin. “This election is about everyone standing up for the things that matter most to us and our families. Whether we care most about college affordability, job opportunities, America’s place in the world or other important issues, we all deserve the chance to weigh in and make our vote count. That means registering and voting.”

Here’s our schedule:

Wednesday, August 29th, 1 – 3p.m. ACC East View, 3401 Webberville Rd.

Friday, Sept. 7th 6:30 – 9:30 p.m. ACC East View, 3401 Webberville Rd.

Thursday, Sept. 13th 11 a.m – 1 p.m. at ACC Riverside, 1020 Grove Ave

Tuesday, Sept. 18th 5 – 8 p.m. at Palmer Auditorium, Constitutional Day Event

Tuesday, Sept. 25th 6 – 9 p.m. at ACC East View

At the last event, we’re screening “MISS REPRESENTATION,” a documentary that explores how the media’s misrepresentations of women leads to the under-representation of women in positions of power and influence.

“Voter registration is a critical step to making sure our voter rolls -and our halls of power- actually reflect the diversity of our communities,” said Susan Morrison, coordinator of the coalition of women’s groups conducting the registration drive. Participating groups include: American Association of University Women, Travis County Women Lawyers Association, National Women’s Political Caucus Education Foundation, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. Austin Alumnae Chapter, and Las Comadres.

According to Census data, nonpartisan groups like the League are responsible for registering large numbers of voters who otherwise would have been left out of the voting process–including young people, new citizens and Americans without college degrees. Nationwide, League volunteers are hosting hundreds of registration events and bringing tens of thousands of new voters onto the rolls.

A Millenial’s Response to the League

Brigid HallAs a master’s student (and an 80s baby) at the University of Texas School of Social Work, I have pushed myself to reach beyond the campus community to make connections with other groups. For a class assignment, and with the encouragement of my grandmother, an active member of her local League in upstate New York, I attended a LWVAA unit meeting back in October. I was originally drawn in by the wide range of issues the League studies, and the variety of presenters the League invites to educate attendees on those issues. I have since become a dues-paying member and attended a few more events.

In today’s climate of extremist politics and regressive policies, civic participation is crucial to ensure the will of the people is present in the government that represents them. Recent popular uprisings, from the Occupy Movement to the Arab Spring to the African Summer, demonstrate that the desire for a responsible and reflective government spans race, gender, class, and age. The decommissioning of the Holly Power Plant is an excellent local example of a diverse community banding together to make change. An entire community united to demand a healthier neighborhood, and Austin Energy was forced to take action. The dualistic nature of our political system divides people and makes inclusive dialogue extremely difficult. Organizations such as the League of Women Voters are essential to restoring participation and faith in our democracy.

As my relationship with the organization continues to grow, I am searching for ways to enlarge the community that associates with the League. The nonpartisan and informative structure of the League offers an inclusive environment that encourages participation from diverse individuals. To increase the diversity of participants, the League needs to increase their visibility in the community. As a proud new member, I plan on starting a campus branch of the League to share our organization with the university community. Gaining authorization to advertise on campus will provide opportunities to host voter registration drives, publicize meetings and generally increase our presence among a younger generation.

In addition, distributing a past issue of the Voters Guide while registering voters will give individuals a closer look at the League to see its truly nonpartisan nature. As Dianne Wheeler’s high school voter registration drive moves forward, and as I organize similar events on campus, the Voters Guide will serve as a take-away piece to keep the League on people’s minds. I want to speak out on behalf of the League to acquaint others with its structure and to extend invitations to our events. I am passionate about creating a healthier future, and I see transgenerational engagement as an important step toward this goal.

Stewart’s call to action to the Millennials will not go unanswered. We have the energy, passion and desire to make positive changes to our political system, and the League has the experience of historical activism. A strong partnership will make our demands louder and more inclusive.

Please visit this blog on the League website, and leave your ideas of how we can build partnerships between the League and the UT community.  I look forward to hearing how we can build a stronger, more age-inclusive, League.~Brigid Hall

More on Geographic Representation in Austin

The Austin League’s SMD study group has examined two sources of information about what happened in cities that changed from at-large to some form of geographic-district-based representation system. One source is a report written in 1984 called “Local Government Elections Systems,” which includes data from six large cities – Fort Worth, San Antonio, Dallas, Houston, Richmond, VA, and Charlotte, NC. Respondents from these cities were interviewed to assess their perceptions of the changes that occurred in city government after they went from at-large to some form of geographic district representation.

Additional data we’ve studied comes from a book called “Governance by Decree, The Impact of the Voting Rights Act in Dallas” which went into great detail about that city’s change from at-large to hybrid in 1975 as well as its change from hybrid to district-only in 1991.

We have summarized pertinent information from both these sources as follows:

Perceived Differences between Hybrid (H) and District Only (DO)

H-city minorities reported less satisfaction with city government responsiveness than in DO cities.
In DO cities, council member vote-trading and coalition-building increased.
In Houston (H), 4 council members came from SW Houston. 3 at-large and 1 from the district.

In the following results, Hybrid (H) and District Only (DO) cities produced similar findings.

Perceived advantages after changing to geographic representation:

Minority representation on boards and commissions increased.
Minorities thought city government responsiveness improved.
Many minorities and non-minorities felt better able to raise issues with their council member.
Some geographically-concentrated groups felt more represented.
Neighborhood groups and non-business special-interest groups felt more represented.
Residents in Ft. Worth and San Antonio, two DO cities, thought that city-wide issues were better addressed.
More council member involvement in city administration.
Increased citizen involvement.
In competitive races, voter turnout increased.
Very significant increase in community participation and council meetings.
More council member involvement in neighborhood meetings.
Residents felt more empowered, long-neglected interest groups became much more active.
Perceptions of community involvement generally confirmed that districting encouraged participation.
Decreased spending for district campaigns, but only at first.
More grassroots campaigning, less media.
Possible to win a “shoe-string” campaign that would be impossible under at-large.
More small donations to candidates.
More diverse candidate pool.
Dallas: previously hidden intra-council conflicts became transparent.
Dallas: many more contracts went to minority-owned businesses.

Perceived drawbacks after changing to geographic representation:

Some respondents felt that council as a whole was less effective solving city-wide problems.
Average campaign spending when running against incumbents was not much less than before.
Business/development interests’ power decreased, but only slightly.
Increased cost for mayoral campaigns.
Increased workload for mayor.
Longer, more divisive council meetings, and more council members tinkered in operational details.
Little evidence that racial, geographic or other special-interest issues were better addressed.
Some geographically-concentrated groups felt less represented.
Wealthy interests were still the major source of funding.
Dallas required some minor adjustments to City Charter.
Dallas: more conflicts between council members and city manager.
Dallas: cronyism and corruption increased.
Dallas: the increase in minority contracts improved things only minimally for low-income residents.