A group of community leaders is suggesting the New Orleans City Council change the way its members are elected — from five members elected from districts and two elected at-large to seven members all elected from districts. Supporters of the idea raise some valid and interesting arguments.
The proposal emerged from a series of neighborhood meetings held by the council in recent weeks to discuss various redistricting plans in the wake of the 2010 Census. By law, the council (like state legislatures and Congress) must redraw district boundaries to conform to constitutional "one man, one vote" requirements.
Proponents of the seven-district idea say more districts will mean fewer constituents for each council member, thereby bringing city government closer to the people. It also would allow voters to "elect candidates of choice," which is the new code word for minority candidates.
The reality is that voters already can elect candidates of choice if they turn out in large enough numbers, which African-American voters in New Orleans have not done very often since Hurricane Katrina. At the same time, smaller districts automatically mean that every vote counts more, which means all voters can elect candidates of choice, whatever those choices may be.
In recent elections, smaller black voter turnout has combined with an increase in crossover voting to produce white majorities on the City Council, the Orleans Parish School Board and in the city's legislative delegation despite the fact that almost two-thirds of the city's residents are African-American.
Critics of the seven-district idea point out that the districts already are smaller because the city's population tumbled after Katrina. After the 2000 Census, each council district contained an average of roughly 97,000 people; after redistricting and Katrina they will have approximately 69,000 each. A seven-district plan would give each council district about 49,000 people.
Changing the number of council districts requires a change in the City Charter, which takes time. The charter currently requires the council to adopt a new five-district plan by early August, which means council members are likely to adopt a new districting plan (with the two at-large seats) at their July 21 meeting. The plan then will be submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice for review under the Voting Rights Act.
However, that does not preclude going forward with an alternative plan. The next round of citywide elections is not until February 2014, which leaves plenty of time to amend the City Charter. The seven-district concept already has generated considerable discussion among council members.
"I am intrigued by the idea," says at-large Councilman Arnie Fielkow, who is term limited in his present seat. "I would like to see more dialogue on that concept."
Fielkow adds that changing from the current plan to a seven-district plan "is not something we can do in the next few weeks. However, it could be done any time between now and 2014."
Here's another wrinkle: Why not combine the two plans? That is, increase the council from seven members to nine — with seven elected from districts and two at-large. That way, at least two members will still look at all issues through a citywide prism — and the others will serve more geographically and socio-economically compact districts.
Why not also eliminate the "weird math" in vote counting that results from making all at-large candidates run against each other? Instead, have candidates run for one at-large seat or the other, as is done in Jefferson Parish. That way, each at-large council member would need a majority to get elected, as opposed to the current 25 percent-plus-one.
There's plenty of time to weigh these and other ideas before the next citywide election.