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Ordinance proposes changing how Orleans at-Large members are elected

23rd April 2012   ·   0 Comments

By Christopher Tidmore
Contributing Writer

A spirited set of hearings kicked off Monday afternoon in the New Orleans City Council Chambers as Councilmembers Cynthia Hedge-Morrell (“D”) and Eric Granderson (at-large) introduced an ordinance that would put before New Orleans voters a proposition to amend the Home Rule Charter to change the way the two At-Large Council­members are elected. The amendment would create two distinct At-Large Councilmember offices that are voted on independently of one another.

Hedge Morrell, defended ordinance noting, “The office of Councilmember At-Large is the only elected office in New Orleans where candidates may be elected with less than a majority of votes cast in an election. Currently, the top two candidates running for the At-Large seats who achieve a plurality of at least 25 percent plus one of votes cast are elected to the office.”

“Splitting the At-Large elections into separate divisions, as is done in Jefferson Parish, would simplify the process and would ensure that At-Large members are elected by a true majority of voters. Both At-Large seats would continue to represent the entire city. The present system of electing At-Large Councilmembers is flawed, as it does not require a simple majority. This ordinance will establish two distinct At-Large Council offices, A and B that are voted independent of one another. In addition, the ordinance assures transparency in the election process as well as places the New Orleans City Council-At-Large offices in sync with federal, state and local best election practices,” Hedge-Morrell concluded.

Interim City Councilmember At-Large Eric Granderson agre­ed. “Councilmember At-Large is a city-wide elective office. This amendment would create a more representative process of electing candidates to these positions. All other elected officials in New Orleans, including District Councilmembers, must be elected by a traditional majority, and the At-Large Councilmembers should also be determined by the majority of voters. The present provisions for electing Council­members At-Large run contrary of fundamental democratic principles and defy good government practices.”

However critics immediate challenged the proposal, noting that African-American leaders in Jefferson Parish have long called for a 25 percent margin in a joint primary as a way of increasing the chances that a Black council­man would be elected parishwide—in a parish where only a third of the electorate is African-American.

To people who have claimed there is a double standard, Grand­erson replied in an interview with The Louisiana Weekly, “This proposal is color-blind. It is simply to ensure that the At Large seats are elected by a true majority of the New Orleans electorate, like all other elected offices in the City of New Orleans. (OPDEC seats not with­stand­ing)…Div­ersity has historically applied to district seats, not to at large positions.”

In fact, some in the Caucasian community have claimed that the 25 percent margins have been defended under the Voting Rights Act, as a needed protection to elect minorities. In New Orleans, where whites are just under 40 percent of the population, Cauca­sians could qualify for special minority protection, and therefore could petition the Justice Department to overrule any move to repeal the 25 percent margin. In other words, when Granderson was asked if he worried about legal challenges, he replied, “No, we are not worried. Although Caucasians are a minority in some jurisdictions, the Depart­ment of Justice has not considered that to be relevant in the national context where African Americans have been a historical minority. In the 2010 elections, the city was majority African-American in both population and registered voters, yet we elected a white Mayor and two white candidates to both Council at Large offices, including one who received over fifty-percent of votes cast in the runoff. I don’t see that argument can be sustained given our most recent electorial history.

But, the issue has come up in At-Large races in Watts, Calif­ornia, where Hispanic activists have charged that the run-together At-Large system benefits African-American candidates over their community. (Blacks have gone from the majority to the minority in Watts, but still control nearly all City Council positions.)

When asked about the complaint, Granderson answered, “I am not familiar with the Watts case or if this is a true parallel…We will not know the impact that this proposed charter amendment will have until it is implemented, if it is implemented. Disclaimer, the Councilmember is proposing this amendment to the Charter absent of any impact of one racial demographic over another. This is simply an effort to ensure that the At-Large seats are elected by a true majority of the New Orleans electorate, like all other elected offices in the City of New Orleans.”

The ordinance require four votes to pass. Then, if the mayor does not exercise his right to veto, it must pass by a simple majority of the electorate.

This article originally published in the April 23, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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