A federal voting-rights lawsuit begins Monday that pits Orange County commissioners against local Hispanic residents.
The plaintiffs, represented by the New York City-based civil-rights group LatinoJustice PRLDEF, allege that Orange leaders in 2011 crafted new political borders that diluted Hispanic voting strength.
Namely, they point to a District 3 seat that had been held by Hispanics in recent decades. And despite a surge in Latinos countywide during the past 10 years, District 3 actually saw its percentage of Hispanics drop after redistricting.
Lawyers for Orange County say the new borders actually created two districts — 3 and 4 — where Hispanics now have a shot to win. The districts both now have more than 40 percent Hispanic populations, a number large enough in the past to elect two different Latinos to District 3, they say.
Chief Judge Anne C. Conway will decide the case. Here are some key issues she will decide, some of the terminology lawyers will be debating, and some of the actors with a bigger stake in any outcome:
Cracking: The plaintiffs say that by splitting Hispanics between Districts 3 and 4, commissioners are cracking the community apart. They want a single district that comes as close to what Orange County now has in District 6, where black residents are 52 percent of the voting-age population.
Gingles factors: This term will dominate the early phase of the trial and refers to conditions the U.S. Supreme Court says must be met to prove the county violated the Voting Rights Act.
Basically, the civil-rights group must show that Orange Hispanics are a large and compact enough community to form a majority district. And they must also prove Latinos vote for similar candidates and that the white majority votes as a bloc and could defeat minority candidates.
The county’s lawyers say those factors don’t exist in this case. Conway wants the Gingles issues settled before the rest of the evidence in the case is laid out by both sides, records show.
Here are the players with the most at stake:
Hispanics: None of Orange’s six commissioners or the mayor is Latino. It’s a departure from most of the past two decades when, at different times, two women with Puerto Rican roots held the District 3 post.
If Conway sides for the plaintiffs, it could improve Latinos’ chances of winning office in a future election. If not, a courtroom defeat could still spur some type of change or rally them to the polls this fall.
Mayor Teresa Jacobs, Pete Clarke and Jennifer Thompson: As mayor, Jacobs was a lead architect of the final borders that are under legal challenge. And win or lose, Jacobs is going to be the face of this case for the county.
Jacobs faces a viable challenger in her re-election race this fall in former Orlando police Chief Val Demings. The trial’s outcome could become an issue in that Aug. 26 primary race.
Clarke won the historically Hispanic District 3 seat in 2012, and Thompson is running for re-election in District 4 this fall. If Conway orders the borders redrawn, they could feel any first impacts. If Conway leaves the district borders alone, it could help both hold on to their posts.
Democrats and Republicans
The Republican-dominated commission has already discussed putting a ballot measure to voters that would ask whether they want to expand the board by two seats, and possibly give Latinos a better shot at winning office. That proposal has been tabled until the voting-rights case is resolved, but some Latinos and Democrats have spoken against it.
County GOP Chairman Lew Oliver said that regardless of whether the county wins or loses the trial, commissioners could blunt negative fallout by pushing that expansion measure to the voters and open the door for Latinos to win a seat.
“It relieves the county of some of the political pressure,” Oliver said.
But Orange Democratic Party Chair Carlos Smith said Republicans are in a no-win situation. If Hispanics prevail in court, Orange leaders are left to defend the illegal districts they drafted.
If Orange County wins in court, Hispanics are still left without any voice on the commission, and it would not be until 2018 that a new open seat materializes. A loss could mobilize Latinos against a GOP-dominated board they would likely blame for that.
“Politically it’s a lose-lose for them,” Smith said. “They should have settled this case.”
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Orange’s Hispanic voting rights lawsuit begins – Orlando Sentinel.