County Legislature tries to preserve Republican dominance, discourage competition with redistricting plan
Orleans County officials have proposed another half-hearted redistricting plan whose sole purpose appears to be to preserve one-party rule and discourage competition.
The current model, with three at-large representatives, dilutes voter participation and increases the costs for citizens that may want to run for office.
The current system was the result of a referendum held in 1979, and a State Supreme Court Judge created the at-large model (four equal districts and three candidates that run in overlapping districts countywide) after a decade of legal challenges to the former governmental body, the Board of Supervisors. The at-large model was never intended as a permanent solution.
As far back as 1980, people that were advocating for the dissolution of the board of supervisors proposed a one-person one-vote solution that included dividing the county into seven equal electoral districts.
Orleans is the only county in the state that uses an at-large model, and since its inception, the result has been one-party dominance at the county level. That is the only justification for keeping it in place
The proposed reapportionment plan is similar to the approach the county took ten years ago when they were forced to comply with the redistricting law. They did as little as possible and waited until the last possible moment to propose changes so they could create a false sense of urgency. This proposed plan, like the last one implemented ten years ago, doesn’t pass the smell test, and it should not pass legal muster either.
County governments are supposed to redistrict six months after census figures are released, and again, the county ignored the law until the threat of litigation. The census data was released in April of 2021, meaning it will be almost two years since the county had to implement a plan.
The law states: “Districts shall not be drawn to discourage competition or to favor or disfavor incumbents or other particular candidates or political parties.”
In Orleans County there are 22,320 active voters, 13,365 of them are registered Republicans, which is approximately 60%. Over the last five elections for county legislature, there have been 35 contests, with the minority party winning one contested election. That is 3%.
Weighing them against state regulations also exposes other problems with the current system:
“Districts shall not be drawn with the intent or result of denying or abridging the equal opportunity of racial or language minority groups to participate in the political process or to diminish their ability to elect representatives of their choice.”
Regarding racial and minority groups, the legislature has not had an African American on the legislature in a decade, they have one woman and zero minority representation.
In the Village of Albion, two out of five candidates were endorsed by Democrats, and two minority groups are represented on the Village Board. That strongly suggests that a smaller district would not only encourage minority participation, but it may also even result in the county legislature looking more like the county it represents.
The At-Large model is long outdated and usually does not stand up to legal scrutiny. As far back as 1986, in Dillard v. Crenshaw, a federal district court found that hundreds of Alabama districts intentionally employed an At-Large electoral model to discriminate against minority voters. Because of that litigation, 176 jurisdictions settled and adopted some form of district voting. Most municipalities in Alabama have abandoned the dilutive At-Large voting model decades ago.
Perhaps most importantly, the intent of voters back in 1980 was to have better representation for all the residents of the county, and yet we have multiple county legislators that live in the same township. How is that better for the residents of the county?
Most people probably don’t care about this issue, but hopefully, Orleans County citizens demand reform, If the county’s current proposal stands, the minority party should proceed with litigation and not back down like they did ten years ago. By allowing the system to continue, the result was another ten years of absolute control that included the ill-thought-out sale of the nursing home to financial predators.
County legislators had a clear choice, they could have corrected the mistake made in 1980, or they could propose a system that preserves their power. It’s clear which one they chose.
(Jennings, a former Albion resident, previously ran for County Legislature.)