Houston’s at-large City Council districts deprive Latinos of fair representation, lawsuit alleges

Houston City Hall on Oct. 2, 2017. (Pu Ying Huang, Pu Ying Huang)

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Citing the underrepresentation of Latinos on Houston’s City Council, one of the nation’s oldest Latino civil rights organizations is suing in hopes of undoing the system the nation’s fourth-largest city uses to elect its governing body.

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In a federal lawsuit filed Monday, the League of United Latin American Citizens and four individual Latino residents allege the city undercuts the voting strength of Latino voters by continuing to elect five of its 16 council members through at-large elections, in which all city voters are able to vote. Eleven council members are elected from individual districts.

The suit asks a federal judge to block use of the partial at-large system in future elections, arguing the system violates the federal Voting Rights Act’s protections against discrimination.

The largest city in Texas, Houston has an election system that stands alone among the state’s major cities, which have all abandoned at-large voting. Other large U.S. cities, including New York City and Los Angeles, long ago abandoned at-large districts.

Just two Latino candidates have ever been elected in Houston’s at-large districts in the city’s history, according to the complaint.

“The Latino voters of Houston have waited for fair redistricting plans,” the complaint reads. “They have waited for years for the City of Houston to end its long relationship with ‘at-large’ districts that dilute the electoral strength of Hispanics. The time has come to replace this old election system that functions solely to dilute the power of Houston’s Latino voters.”

The fight to rid the state of at-large districts goes back decades, when civil rights attorneys and Texans of color successfully challenged election systems across the state under the Voting Rights Act in hopes of giving voters of color more say in who represents them. They diversified city councils and school boards that were once entirely white by forcing them to move from at-large voting systems to a single-member approach, in which the city or school district is split up and voters elect representatives for their respective geographic areas.

In other areas, including Houston, cities and school boards have switched to hybrid systems with some representatives elected from individual districts and others elected at large.

Mayor Sylvester Turner’s office and the city attorney’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the lawsuit.

The federal lawsuit follows the City Council’s October vote to approve new boundaries for its 11 single-member districts to incorporate population growth captured in the 2020 census. In a city of 2.3 million, Latinos make up about 44% of the population and easily account for the largest demographic group.

The share of Latinos drops to about 31% when considering only eligible voters, who make up a majority of the electorate in only two of the 11 districts, according to the lawsuit. Just two members of the 16-member council are Latino or Latina, the lawsuit says.

The plaintiffs argue Latino voters make up sufficiently large and geographically compact groups to be a majority in at least four single-member districts.

“There is no harm to the City of Houston by allowing the plaintiff and other voters the ability to elect all council members in single-member districts, which will allow all voters the right to cast a meaningful vote in Houston municipal elections,” the Houston plaintiffs said in the lawsuit.

The Houston area has previously been embroiled in legal fights over city representation and discrimination against Latino residents. A federal judge in 2017 ruled Pasadena, a majority-Latino suburb of Houston, violated the Voting Rights Act when the city replaced its single-member districts with a hybrid system.

Notably, the judge ordered the city back under federal supervision of its voting rules — the only setup of its kind in Texas at the time.

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