Judy Shimel's article on the lawsuit we filed to compel the territory to create single-member districts was generally accurate but essentially missed — as many others have — the point. The action has nothing to do with who wins elections; it has everything to do with vote dilution. Whites and Hispanics are not the only victims of the at-large system, which necessarily creates imbalances in voting strength. Everyone is hurt by the inequities.
Before we took legal action, we studied the results of recent elections by polling place. It was clear that certain groups of voters, chiefly on geographical grounds, preferred certain candidates. For example, in the last election voters on the western end of St. Croix voted heavily for Adelbert Bryan, but the veteran senator lost because of flimsy support across the rest of the island. The votes of the Frederiksted folks were diluted, and their choice was defeated.
Voters on the East End strongly backed Douglas Canton, Hope Gibson and Noel Loftus, along with other candidates who were black and Hispanic or both. Canton won, since he was supported by a large number of voters islandwide, while Gibson, Loftus and other choices in that precinct — black, white and Hispanic — were not.
How, then, do you make things right?
We presented our arguments to Delegate Donna M. Christensen, hoping she could urge Congress to act. She did not even respond with a thank you very much. She ignored us. (I voted for her, by the way.)
So we tried the local-legislation route. We met with Sen. Emmett Hansen in his office. He thought districting was a fine idea, and we hoped he would at least bring the subject up in the Legislature. Nothing whatsoever came of it; we have heard nary a peep.
Since it was clear to us that the territory was not only being unfair to large numbers of voters but also was in indisputable violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, we approached a few lawyers about the problem. They wouldn't touch the case with a barge pole. As one said, "I need political cover. I have to live here." A chilling remark indeed.
Unable to get any satisfaction or even response from the politicians and rebuked by the lawyers, we toyed with the idea of an initiative — but remembered what happened with at least three other referenda the voters passed overwhelmingly. The senators snubbed the people and the law and scurried away in their SUV's.
With nowhere else to go, we filed the suit ourselves, based on the apparently bizarre belief that civil-rights laws apply to all people, not just those historically disenfranchised by Jim Crow laws and the institutionalized racism against blacks in the Old South or Hispanics in Los Angeles County or American Indians in South Dakota. Suddenly, we became racists. I personally found the charges astonishing, since anyone who has read any of the hundreds of editorials I composed while editor of The Avis would be unable to spot a molecule of racism in anything I wrote or said. Racism, after all, is the conviction that one race is superior to another, not a plea for election reform. Opponents of change and equal rights trotted out their old straw man of racism and declared it unclean.
The Avis itself got it wrong. The paper editorialized (and Supervisor of Elections John Abramson chimed in likewise in Shimel's piece) that since Hispanics and whites have been elected in the past, our complaint has no merit. Vote dilution was never mentioned. All the fuss was about the preposterous idea that we and many others wanted whites and Hispanics elected, which is nonsense. We don't believe that anyone would choose a weak white or Hispanic candidate over a qualified black candidate — or vice versa. All people want is to be represented and have their representatives accountable to them, regardless of color or ethnicity on either end.
Abramson's charge that I am indulging in "race baiting" is unfortunate and dead wrong. He should know better, since he is an expert on election processes. We had every reason to expect he would have concluded, as we did, that the best way to correct these serious violations would be through the courts, as civil-rights advocates have done for decades. Since there is no federal or local law that forbids, technically, at-large voting, we turned to the Voting Rights Act, which clearly forbids vote dilution.
As I told Shimel, a good analogy might be that old rascal Al Capone. He was not convicted of murder, theft, extortion or racketeering — all of which he was guilty of — but was jailed on tax evasion. Thus the IRS laws were brought to bear to correct a social pathology. Did anyone accuse the feds of wanting only that Capone pay his taxes? Hardly.
In order to prove vote dilution under Section 2, a plaintiff has no choice but to claim some sort of discrimination. And so we did, since otherwise we would never get past the courthouse door. We would have much preferred a political solution, but that gate was solidly barred.
Another argument we hear more or less constantly, regardless of our efforts to dispel the error, is that the "majority" should rule. We wholeheartedly agree. Now please name one senator from St. Croix who was elected by a majority of voters. Nope, not one. The fact is that the same 6,000 or so people can elect all St. Croix senators in every single election. There are 25,000 registered voters on the big island, but all you need to prevail is the support of fewer than one-quarter of them. Why? Vote dilution.
The same goes for St. Thomas. Other than the at-large senator, currently Rocky Liburd, only one senator in the Legislature won a majority of votes cast in the last election: Foncie Donastorg, with a landslide 50.1 percent.
With single-member districts, any candidate for Senate would need to garner a majority to win, and the elected senators would need to behave properly to repeat their success. That's called accountability and representative government and democracy, of which we have but a modicum under the at-large system. Many excellent candidates — everyone can name at least one, and they come in all sorts of colors — are rebuffed in every election because of the insane method we currently labor under.
We pray we can put paid to the ugly and bogus charges of racism, come together as a responsible polity and make things whole. If anyone thinks the way we elect our senators makes any sense, we would suggest he read a newspaper or listen to the radio and TV. Because of our acquiescence in the status quo, we have created a human tragedy in tolerating the tyrannical insistence by the ruling elite that people and votes don't count — only who controls things.
If our lawsuit is successful, and we believe it will be, St. Croix can be delivered from the decades-old hegemony of St. Thomas, and the Good Ol' Boys system of spoils and manipulation and the blatant trampling of everyone's civil rights will be consigned to history.
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