The Richardson ISD has settled a voting rights lawsuit by agreeing to change its at-large election system into a hybrid system of five single-member districts and two at-large. What can the City of Richardson learn from RISD's experience?
Like the RISD, the City of Richardson has a thin record of electing members of ethnic minorities to its city council. It too could be ripe for legal challenge.
The City of Richardson might feel its situation is more defensible than the RISD's. Like the RISD, the City of Richardson elects all of its city council members at large, but unlike the RISD, the city does impose a residency requirement on some council members. Four council members must reside in four geographic places, although they are still elected at large. That residency requirement is a defense, if a weak one.
A stronger defense is that no minority group is sufficiently numerous and compact to form a majority in a single-member district in the city. That's one of the preconditions needed for a successful challenge on voting rights grounds. The two majority-minority districts that the RISD is moving towards lie mostly outside the city's borders.
One lesson the city should learn from RISD's experience is that it is expensive to defend itself in court, win or lose. The RISD will have spent over a half million dollars in legal fees on its lawsuit, even without going to trial, only to end up agreeing to the plaintiff's basic demands of single-member districts. It could have avoided that by proactively changing its election system, by itself, before the lawsuit was filed.
The city shouldn't rest too easy thinking it is safe from legal challenge. It should also bear in mind that there's another way it could be forced to change its election system. A petition by citizens could force the city to put the question before voters. We've seen this before. A petition for direct election of the mayor, approved overwhelmingly by voters, forced the city to change. Who doubts that the citizens, if given the choice, wouldn't also approve a change to single-member districts? Single-member districts just sounds so obvious, so natural, that citizens probably think that we already have such a system. We're America, right? All it takes is for someone with enough money to hire signature-gatherers for a petition to get it on the ballot and we'll get single-member districts.
There's a drawback to having such a change forced on the city by petition. It would be cheaper for the city than a lawsuit, sure, but it takes the ball entirely out of experienced, knowledgeable hands, which is bad. Whoever drafted the petition containing charter changes for direct election of the mayor wasn't all that careful. It took a do-over election with 83 charter amendments to clean up the ambiguities. Most of the amendments were unrelated to the mayor, but some were. Who knows what problems the drafter of a charter amendment for single-member districts might unintentionally introduce? The city is better off taking the initiative here and drawing up its own plan for evolution of the city's election system towards some form of single-member districts. It will save money by avoiding legal fees. It will head off a potential slapdash system drafted by a petition writer. But most important, it's the right thing to do. After all, the current system has been proven inadequate at giving us a city council that looks as diverse as our great city.