Voting Rights: ACLU Endorses Gresham Ballot Measure 26-141 (2012)

In addition to making choices about elected leaders and statewide issues, voters in Gresham will have the opportunity this November to make a decision on an important voting rights issue: should the Gresham City Council return to a system of district elections?  In 1986 the Gresham voters chose to replace its district elections system with at-large elections, which is the system that exists today.  Gresham Ballot Measure 26-141 would preserve the at-large election of the mayor, but would require Gresham City Council members to reside in and be elected from one of six council districts.

Because at-large elections too often dilute minority voting strength or obstruct the ability of minority communities to elect candidates of their choice, the ACLU of Oregon supports Measure 26-141 and urges Gresham voters to vote YES.

The federal Voting Rights Act strengthens our constitutional right to vote by banning the use of voting practices that have a disparate negative impact on racial and language minorities. At-large election systems risk doing just that. What’s more, the smaller the constituency, the more likely it is that an elective councilor will be representative of and responsive to his or her constituency and the more likely it is that the voters will make an informed choice.

A return to district elections will have a positive impact on the Gresham City Council. Currently, the mayor and all six councilors are elected at large and, on the current council, four of the seven reside in the same affluent neighborhood of Gresham.  Proponents of the Measure argue that at-large elections create disproportionate representation that does not reflect or truly represent the city as a whole – especially residents of color.  Among the outcomes of this disparity, they argue, is inconsistent response to City Code violations. Another is that minority communities do not have a voice at Council. According to the 2010 Census, 18.9% of the population of Gresham is Latino and many members of the Latino community are concentrated in the Rockwood neighborhood. Yet no councilor of Latino descent from Rockwood has ever been elected to Council.

Gresham voters should take the opportunity this election to affirm their commitment to a more representative city council and vote YES on Measure 26-141.