There’s still a lawsuit in the works regarding their 2013 redistricting referendum that switched their Council from an eight-member all-district makeup to six districts and two At large seats, all at the behest of Mayor Johnny Isbell.
Pasadena is preparing to change the makeup of its city council in a way that city fathers hope fosters new development, but that some Hispanics allege dilutes their influence. The case could become a test of the Supreme Court ruling last year that struck down most of the federal Voting Rights Act, giving cities in many Southern states new latitude to change election laws affecting minorities without first getting federal approval.
“Clearly it was racism,” said Pasadena Councilman Ornaldo Ybarra, one of two Hispanics on Pasadena’s eight-member council, about the town’s planned council changes. The campaign for a new voting system “was meant to scare Anglos, and it was effective,” he said.
In Pasadena, which is roughly 60 percent Hispanic, voters approved a referendum that replaces two city council seats representing districts with at-large seats, which Hispanic leaders say will negate their growing population numbers. The new format was proposed by the mayor, who is white, in July 2013, one month after the high court decision.
The mayor and supporters insist the new format will bring more participation by all Pasadena residents because they’ll have more to vote for. They note that other cities, including Houston, have at-large council members.
Some Hispanics fear that wealthier white candidates will have the upper hand in at-large races that demand costlier citywide campaigns.
Suing the city on behalf of five Hispanic residents is the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, which also took Texas to court over the state’s new voter ID law.
Since the Supreme Court ruling last year, most attention has focused on statewide-voting changes made in some of the 15 states covered by the Voting Rights Act, which was passed during the Civil Rights era. The Pasadena case is one of the first involving a city.
The plaintiffs face the burden of proving intentional discrimination. Civil rights attorneys say they worry that the money and effort of mounting a challenge will discourage action in many cities.
See here, here, here, here, and here. I don’t see any information about when the lawsuit that was filed will be heard, but I’m sure it’s on a docket somewhere. The bit I quoted above is what interests me here, as it contains a testable proposition. The city of Pasadena, which is to say Mayor Isbell and his enablers, claim that by switching to a hybrid at large/single member district system, turnout will increase in Pasadena. I’d love to review what turnout has been in Pasadena over the past few cycles, but for the life of me I can’t find past election results from Pasadena anywhere – they are not in the Harris County Clerk election results, much to my surprise. If anyone can point me to them, I’d be grateful. In any event, there’s another avenue for investigation, and that’s turnout in the Houston district Council races versus turnout in the At Large races, since the Houston model is cited as what Pasadena aspires to. What I’m going to look at is the undervote rate in district versus At Large races, on the theory that if no one casts a vote in a particular race, it’s hard to claim that that race affected overall turnout in a positive way. Here’s the data for Houston, for the last six elections:
2013 Undervote 2011 Undervote 2009 Undervote ============================================================= Mayor 2.76% Mayor 4.18% Mayor 2.05% Dist A 10.36% Dist A 8.85% Dist A 18.24% Dist B 11.12% Dist B 9.78% Dist B 14.94% Dist D 12.53% Dist C 5.61% Dist C 13.30% Dist F 21.40% Dist D 8.91% Dist D 15.05% Dist G 22.47% Dist F 12.96% Dist E 14.98% Dist I 10.44% Dist G 14.32% Dist F 8.64% Dist I 11.73% Dist G 22.51% AL 1 27.49% Dist J 10.74% AL 2 29.76% Dist K 11.44% AL 1 28.48% AL 3 26.37% AL 2 30.65% AL 4 24.87% AL 1 22.50% AL 4 28.36% AL 5 28.03% AL 2 17.97% AL 5 25.89% AL 3 20.81% Controller 22.32% AL 4 20.05% Controller 15.39% AL 5 12.03% 2007 Undervote 2005 Undervote 2003 Undervote ============================================================= Mayor 6.73% Mayor 5.51% Mayor 1.38% Dist B 10.55% Dist A 19.01% Dist A 13.49% Dist C 11.40% Dist B 8.65% Dist B 11.97% Dist D 10.66% Dist C 12.82% Dist C 12.86% Dist E 10.29% Dist F 10.13% Dist E 12.90% Dist I 9.80% Dist H 12.10% Dist F 13.97% Dist I 9.33% Dist G 14.20% AL 1 31.53% Dist H 10.29% AL 2 24.94% AL 1 20.88% Dist I 13.13% AL 3 18.61% AL 2 26.37% AL 5 19.86% AL 3 24.62% AL 1 20.46% AL 5 22.92% AL 2 22.84% AL 3 18.05% AL 4 19.24% AL 5 17.29% Controller 14.04%
So over six cycles, covering the full tenures of two different Mayors and including high-turnout and low-turnout elections, the undervote rate in every single contested At Large race was higher, often significantly higher, than the undervote in every single district race, with the sole exception of At Large 5 and Districts F and G in 2011. That was the year Jolanda Jones was defeated in a runoff by Jack Christie, and it was the highest profile race that year, certainly the highest profile At Large race in any of these six years.
This to me is very strong evidence that At Large races don’t do anything to drive turnout. This should make intuitive sense – At Large races are as expensive to run as Mayoral races, but no one has anywhere near the funds to do that, while District races can be reasonably run with shoe leather and some mail. Candidates in At Large races are not as well known as candidates in district races, who have a far greater incentive to attend smaller neighborhood and civic club meetings. I’d bet we’ll see a similar pattern in Pasadena, with the district races having greater participation than the At Large races. I just hope I’ll be able to find their election results so I can check that.
This will be the first election in Pasadena under this new arrangement, assuming it isn’t thrown out before the election, which I would not expect to happen. I wish I could say that Mayor Isbell was on the ballot and that this was a chance to throw him out, but alas, he has a four year term and was re-elected in 2013. This is a chance to unseat a couple of his minions, however, and if there’s a good local opportunity for anyone upset with the 2014 elections to focus on, it’s here. The Texas Organizing Project did a lot of good work in trying to defeat the 2013 redistricting referendum, and with a little more help they might have succeeded. Whatever happens with the lawsuit, it would be nice to turn the tables in this election. You want to make a difference, get involved with TOP and help support some good candidates in Pasadena this year.