Frumencio Reyes, the dean of Houston-area redistricting litigation, said he believes the mayor made the right decision in putting off redistricting.
Reyes, who has taken at least one Voting Rights Act case to the U.S. Supreme Court, said that if the city were to go ahead with redistricting now, it could disenfranchise local Latinos. His rationale echoed city officials: To undertake redistricting, municipalities must use U.S. Census micro-data to develop the precincts that would be used to draw voting districts.
But the Census only completes population counts at that level of specificity every 10 years, as it will do next year. To add two districts, the city would have to use data from 2000. Based on advice from his city attorney and Reyes, White has opted to wait until the 2010 Census results are in, asserting that any plan devised before then likely would not withstand a legal challenge.
"Using the old census numbers would create a tremendous disadvantage for Hispanic voters," Reyes said. Of all the demographic groups in Houston, the Latino population has grown the most in the past 10 years and has the most to lose by poorly drawn voting districts, he said.
Reyes is not the only community leader finding himself in an unusual position. Former City Councilmen Carroll Robinson and John Castillo are backing the lawsuit. Like Reyes, Castillo was involved in the 1979 settlement with the Department of Justice that brought about the 2.1 million provision. As an aide to Councilman Ben Reyes in the late 1970s, he pushed the city to add a second Hispanic district, researching the population himself and turning in an alternative plan to what the city presented to the Department of Justice. He played a key role in fashioning District H.
"I'm disappointed that the city has not tried to be compliant with the court order and the settlement that was reached," Castillo said. "It's obvious that they did know in 2006 that the threshold had been reached and should have begun to make plans to implement the new districts as soon as possible."
White announced his intent Wednesday to set up a campaign to involve community leaders, churches and council in the upcoming Census count. The "Complete Count" committee, an idea used during the 2000 Census, would seek to encourage participation in the Census. City officials said the committee will make a special effort to find "hard to reach" communities that some demographers worry are undercounted.
Robinson said the "complete count" effort was a good idea but separate from the requirements in the charter to redistrict. He castigated council members for a separate action taken Wednesday that essentially ratified the 2000 Census count of around 1.95 million people for voting purposes, even though the city has for years used far higher population figures -- now reaching around 2.2 million -- in official documents, including budget-related calculations
White will chair the "Complete Count Committee" in an effort to publicize the importance of every Houston resident's participation in the census next year. Federal funding, charity grants and political redistricting at all levels depend on the accuracy of the count.
"People need not be afraid of filling out the census form," said Councilman James Rodriguez, who will be vice chairman of the committee. "There is a concern in the immigrant community that it will be used to determine their immigration status and it will be turned over to (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and they'll be deported."
Census numbers are never turned over to immigration officials, Rodriguez said, but he added that a massive public relations effort is needed to encourage participation. In 2000, doorhandle fliers used on the East Side featured a prominent Catholic bishop's photo and instructions in English and Spanish.
Rodriguez wants the committee to begin work in the next few weeks.