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On the Lines

A lawsuit alleges that the redistricting process in Albany County is unfair to minorities

by Jason Chura on July 6, 2011

A lawsuit has been filed against Albany County and the Albany County Board of Elections, charging that the county and board failed to uphold the rights of minority voters when they neglected to include a fifth minority voting district in the latest round of county redistricting.

The complaint was filed by former Albany NAACP president Anne Pope, as well as Albany County Legislator Wanda Willingham (District 3), and Janis Gonzalez, an Albany County Legislature candidate. Gonzalez’s campaign was shifted from Legislative District 1 to Legislative District 6, opposing Brian Scavo, when County Executive Michael Breslin signed Local Law C on June 6, enacting the new redistricting plan. The redistricting lines detailed in Local Law C were first approved by the Albany County Legislature with a staunchly divided vote.

In their complaint, Pope, Willingham, and Gonzalez claim that their “rights to participate in the electoral process” were “unlawfully denied or abridged” by the board when it implemented the redistricting plan for the county. They claim that Local Law C “dilutes minority voting strength such that the political processes leading to nomination or election in Albany County are not equally open to participation by minorities,” and as such violates the federal Voting Rights Act.

“It’s time for the County of Albany to comply with federal law, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and stop playing ping-pong with the minority community—a community greatly neglected, disconnected, underrepresented, and disenfranchised,” said Janis Gonzalez via e-mail.

Using a redistricting plan drawn up by the Arbor Hill Environmental Justice Corporation, they assert that a fifth minority district is warranted by demographic shifts in the county and could feasibly have been drawn into district lines, but simply wasn’t.

“The claim is what it is. There’s no doubt that there should be a fifth minority district. Plain and simple,” said Wanda Willingham.

The lawsuit cites 2010 U.S. Census data as basis for the complaint, as well as a poor track record for minority candidates in districts that have a white majority, which in turn has lead to minority underrepresentation in county offices and departments, according to the complaint.

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, Albany County’s total population increased by 3.3 percent since 2000. Meanwhile, the minority population in Albany County rose 36.2 percent since the 2000 and now comprises 24 percent of the county’s total population. The county’s minority population is largely concentrated in the City of Albany, where minorities make up 46 percent of the total population, an increase of 21 percent since 2000. Meanwhile, the non-Hispanic white population in Albany County has decreased by 4.1 percent, while all minority populations saw significant growth.

“When you talk about what’s going to happen for the next 10 years, we need to be mindful of who we are responsible to; someone who might be a minor right now, but who will be 18 in 10 years. We have a huge responsibility right now,” said Willingham.

“For me, the lawsuit is a badge of honor. I wear it on behalf of those most silenced and suppressed by individuals in political power who chose a plan of political protection instead of a plan of political progress and destiny,” said Gonzalez.

County lines are redrawn based on the results of the National Census conducted every 10 years. This is the third time the county redistricting plan has been challenged in as many decades due to inadequate apportionment of majority-minority districts. Both past suits were successful and resulted in additional majority-minority districts drawn into county lines.

Rachel Bledi, Republican commissioner for the Board of Elections, said she thinks the board was named in the suit as a technicality. The board, she says, “doesn’t draw the lines nor do we vote to enact the lines. The only part that we have in this process is purely in terms of operations and administration of the elections themselves.”

If the lawsuit is successful, the county would have to adopt the Arbor Hill Environmental Justice Corporation’s plan, or draw up a new plan in which district lines accommodate a fifth majority-minority district. The fifth district most likely would be allocated somewhere within the City of Albany. Special elections would then be held to align Albany County Legislature seats to the new districts. Alternately, county elections could be halted until a new redistricting agreement is reached.

Despite their involvement in upcoming elections, Willingham and Gonzalez claim that the lawsuit is not politically motivated, but rather a call for fairness for the minority citizens of Albany County.

“Let’s try to do the right thing for the people that live here,” said Willingham. “For all the people because this is a truly diversified community; more so than what people realize.”