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Lawyer argues staggered Texas council elections, new district maps deny thousands the right to vote

Gabriel C. Pérez

If the lawsuit is successful, representatives for all 10 council districts would be on the November ballot, rather than just five.

An Austin lawyer has sued council members over what he says is the denial of voting rights to tens of thousands of residents.

Bill Aleshire filed the lawsuit in a Travis County district court Tuesday on behalf of a dozen Austin residents. In it, he argues that nearly 24,000 people who were moved into new council districts as part of the city’s recent redistricting efforts are being denied their right to elect a local representative.

“They were moved from a council district that had been on their ballot to one that has never been and won’t be for two more years,” he told KUT. “In a representative democracy it is not the government that designates and tells people who their representative will be. The voters get to choose.”

Austin staggers its council elections, as part of a measure approved by voters in 2012. Representatives for half the city’s council districts are on the ballot every two years, with council members serving four-year terms.

But when a group of volunteers redrew the council district maps last year — something the city does every 10 years based on new demographic data from the census — some residents found themselves in new districts being represented by people they didn't vote for.

Aleshire lists a dozen of these residents as plaintiffs. One person, Carolyn Anderson, was previously in Council District 1, which is represented by Natasha Harper-Madison. Because of redistricting, Anderson now lives in District 4.

A special election was held this year after the District 4 council member, Greg Casar, announced he was stepping down to run for Congress. The city used the old maps to determine who was eligible to vote in the election, so Anderson did not get a say in who would represent her on the council.

Chito Vela, who won the race, won’t be up for reelection until 2024.

“[Anderson] will have gone six years without having a chance to vote on who represents her on the Austin City Council,” Aleshire said.

Aleshire sued Austin's 10 council members and the mayor because they have the power to call elections. If his lawsuit is successful, Vela would have to run again this November — nearly eight months after his first campaign.

KUT reached out to the five council members whose offices would be put on a November ballot if Aleshire’s lawsuit is successful.

In a statement, Council Member Mackenzie Kelly did not respond directly about the lawsuit, but said "As a sitting council member, I am an advocate and supporter of voting rights."

Council Member Leslie Pool said through a spokesperson she would not comment on the lawsuit. Council Members Vela, Vanessa Fuentes and Alison Alter either did not respond to the inquiry from KUT or said they needed more time to read the lawsuit.

Copyright 2022 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.

Audrey McGlinchy is the City Hall reporter at KUT, covering the Austin City Council and the policies they discuss. She comes to Texas from Brooklyn, where she tried her hand at publishing, public relations and nannying. Audrey holds English and journalism degrees from Wesleyan University and the City University of New York. She got her start in journalism as an intern at KUT Radio during a summer break from graduate school. While completing her master's degree in New York City, she interned at the New York Times Magazine and Guernica Magazine.