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Hispanics Hit Voting Hurdles…4 Sue Kissimmee Over Elections System

Hispanics Hit Voting Hurdles

In parts of Central Florida, election systems make it hard for Latinos to win.

By Víctor Manuel Ramos | Sentinel Staff Writer

July 23, 2005
Copyright © 2005 Orlando Sentinel. All rights reserved.

Hispanics in a dozen Central Florida cities and counties face many of the same obstacles to political power that prompted the federal government to haul Osceola County into court.

The hurdles range from a lack of bilingual ballots in Seminole and four other counties with growing Hispanic populations to an at-large election system in 15 cities and counties with Hispanic communities of significant size. A review of census population figures and voter-enrollment tallies reveals:

*?Cities with significant Hispanic populations, such as Kissimmee, Apopka, Casselberry, Mascotte and Pierson, have at-large election systems that could make it difficult to elect minorities. Such a system is legal as long as it does not produce a pattern of discrimination against blacks, Hispanics or other minorities protected under civil-rights laws.

*?Communities with large Hispanic populations, such as Pierson, have no political representation because too few Hispanics have registered to vote -- an indication that citizenship remains elusive for Mexican migrants.

*?Hispanics in Central Florida make up at least 5 percent of registered voters in most counties. The federal trigger for counties to offer bilingual ballots in a minority community's primary language, in this case Spanish, is 5 percent of voting-age adults or more than 10,000 voters. Only Orange and Osceola counties offer bilingual ballots. Other counties are waiting for the 2010 census to act.

This week, the federal government filed suit to force Osceola County, where 35 percent of residents are Hispanic, to do away with at-large elections and adopt single-member districts. Kissimmee, with the Hispanic population at 46 percent, may be the next federal target.

Single-member districts help grass-roots candidates, and particularly minorities, to win without having to raise as much cash as in at-large elections that cover an entire county or city.

But even when districts exist -- such as in Orange County, where voters approved that system for the School Board in 2000 -- political representation can prove difficult. No Hispanic serves on Orange County's School Board.

A lack of Hispanic voter participation may be a factor in the region, too. About 42 percent of Hispanic residents in the seven Central Florida counties are registered voters. That compares with an overall voter registration rate of 62 percent.

A model for region

By and large, Central Florida cities -- such as Daytona Beach, Ocoee and Sanford -- that long ago switched to single-member districts have significant black populations. They followed trends born out of the civil-rights movement, when the struggle for racial equality led to the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Single-member districts could be a model for other Central Florida cities with growing Hispanic populations. It has already worked for Deltona, where Hispanic candidates have been consistently elected.

"This is not an Osceola situation. This concerns all of Central Florida," said Marytza Sanz, president of Latino Leadership, an Orlando-based advocacy group. "It's likely that this situation will awaken people in other counties who want representation."

Only Orange County and Deltona have Hispanics on their boards. Both use the single-member district system like the one the federal government proposes for Osceola.

"Historically, there's enough case law that when you go countywide for local races, you are denying access to power to minorities," said James Auffant, an Orlando lawyer involved in the Osceola case.

'All but one lost'

Nancy Acevedo, a Winter Springs resident, heads the Republican National Hispanic Assembly of Central Florida. She lost an at-large race for the Seminole School Board last year and says at-large systems hinder progress. She pointed to the region's 2004 elections.

"We were 18 Hispanics running for different positions, and all but one lost," Acevedo said. "The way things are structured now, one has to count with the majority vote, and that constitutes a real barrier."

The one Hispanic winner in a local race was Orange County Commissioner Mildred Fernández, a Puerto Rican elected to a single-member district. She walked every street in her district -- twice.

"That helped me to communicate directly with all voters, not only Hispanics, because we are not an overwhelming majority to win with just our votes," Fernández said.

The challenge in small cities

Hispanics comprise 16 percent of Mascotte's registered voters , the same rate as in Orange County. Yet Hispanics in that small Lake County city have not been elected or become a strong voting bloc.

Mascotte City Manager Marge Strausbaugh said the city of 3,000 has not considered restructuring its elections system to single districts.

"It'd be a little more difficult to district because we are pretty compact," Strausbaugh said Friday. "As we grow, that may be a different issue."

The citizenship gap also is noticeable in areas with large Mexican populations, such as Apopka. Or Pierson, where an astounding 62 percent of residents are Hispanic, but only 50 of the area's 669 registered voters are Latinos. That's also the pattern in Polk County.Farmworker activist Tirso Moreno said that despite his organization's best efforts last year, it could only register about 1,000 immigrant voters statewide.

"For us in rural areas, political participation is a bigger problem, because people are not concentrated in one area, many cannot vote and there's little outreach to motivate those who can vote," he said. Suburban cities with substantial numbers of Hispanic voters, such as Apopka, Altamonte Springs and Casselberry, continue to hold at-large elections.

Casselberry spokeswoman Susan Vernon-Devlin said that even though 15 percent of the city's 22,600 residents are Hispanic, they likely would not benefit from districts because Hispanics are not concentrated in one area.

"I don't think you can come into a neighborhood and say, 'This is a Hispanic neighborhood,' " Vernon-Devlin said. "You may find a Hispanic family, a Croatian family, a black family. It's not like in Kissimmee."

The language barrier

Many Hispanics who are citizens, which includes all the Puerto Ricans who have settled here, may not be fluent in English. Only Orange and Osceola offer bilingual ballots.

Former Winter Springs Commissioner Ed Martinez has been trying to get bilingual ballots in the county since 1995.

"When election time comes up, people who want to vote, who are willing to get out and vote, find it very difficult to do so," he said, "because they do not understand the ballots, the issues on the referendum and how the system here works."

Seminole County Elections Supervisor Michael Ertel said he is considering having "at least bilingual poll workers" at key sites, but no bilingual ballots yet.

"What we have right now is 8 percent of registered voters who identified themselves as Hispanic on their applications, and it's not the official census number to go by," Ertel said. "You have to weigh the public service of having a bilingual ballot, as well as some fiscal issues."

But activist Laura Portorreal Romero, who advocates for districts in Osceola, says the fight for single-member districts is not solely about ethnicity. "I am sure we will see a few Hispanics running for office, and it doesn't matter if it's Hispanic or Anglo in the end, but more so that we have representatives from the local communities, so they can represent everyone's needs."

4 Sue Kissimmee Over Elections System

The challenge comes on the heels of a Justice Department lawsuit against Osceola County.

By Valencia Prashad | Sentinel Staff Writer

August 2, 2005
Copyright © 2005 Orlando Sentinel. All rights reserved.

KISSIMMEE -- Four private citizens filed a federal lawsuit Monday contending that Kissimmee's method of electing city commissioners is unfair to minorities, echoing a claim made in a Justice Department suit against Osceola County two weeks earlier.

The suit seeks to push the city to adopt single-member election districts, in which only the voters living in a specific district elect their commissioner, plaintiffs said at a news conference.

The plaintiffs, only two of whom are Kissimmee residents, said the city's election system, in which voters citywide select all five commissioners, discriminates against Hispanics and other minorities.

Kissimmee, a city of 56,000 that is more than 40 percent Hispanic, has never elected a Latino commissioner and only one black.

"Time is of the essence," said Armando Ramirez, who brought the civil suit along with John Cortes, Caridad Cortes and Gwendolyn Hill in U.S. District Court in Orlando without using an attorney.

Using the momentum of the county case, "we would be exerting pressure on the Justice Department," Ramirez said.

A change to single-member districts could create a majority-Hispanic district in Kissimmee, the suit argues.

The only minority ever elected to the City Commission was Naomi Winbush, who was black. Winbush, who served from March 1981 until March 1987, died nearly six years ago.

"We feel strongly that the communities are not represented. We're talking about the Hispanic communities, the black communities," said Hill, an Orange County resident who has owned a barbershop in Kissimmee for more than 20 years.

Monday's complaint follows a similar lawsuit that was filed two weeks earlier by the U.S. Department of Justice in an effort to force Osceola County to stop electing commissioners strictly on a countywide basis. County commissioners will huddle with their attorneys behind closed doors today to discuss how to respond to the suit.

Ramirez, who now lives outside Kissimmee but lost a City Commission election in 2002, said he filed a complaint with the Justice Department in 2000 that led to its investigation of Osceola County.

Even though the county's Hispanic population has grown from 12 percent in 1990 to 35 percent last year, only one Hispanic has ever been elected to the County Commission. That happened during a four-year period in the 1990s when the county briefly shifted to single-member districts.

A Justice Department investigator questioned Kissimmee officials several months ago about its at-large electoral system but has not given any indication it will file a lawsuit, City Manager Mark Durbin has said.

The City Commission has scheduled an Aug. 23 workshop to discuss the option of single-member districts, among other election issues, Durbin added.

In past years, city commissioners participated in workshops about changing the system to single-member districts, but such plans never went anywhere because commissioners didn't see a need, Mayor Linda Goodwin-Nichols said Monday.

"It's the people who vote that elect the people in office. It may come down to the fact maybe the people who are voting are electing the most qualified people," Goodwin-Nichols said.

"If people don't believe that, then they need to get more people to vote. If 42 percent of the people in this community are Hispanic and they voted, they could elect whomever they wanted. It all comes back to who goes to the polls," she said.

Kissimmee City Attorney Don Smallwood said he does not comment on pending lawsuits.

The Kissimmee lawsuit did not have the backing of the Justice Department, and the plaintiffs had not yet retained an attorney Monday.

"We have quite a few people standing beside us," Hill said. Some are scared to step forward because they have city and county jobs. Some live in high-crime areas and fear retaliation, she added.

The plaintiffs plan to retain counsel and raise money, Ramirez said.

The Osceola School District, which also elects board members countywide, and other agencies may become the targets of similar suits, said John Cortes, president of Kissimmee Neighborhood Crime Watch, who made an unsuccessful bid for City Commission last year.

"We want a better Kissimmee for everybody, not just for minorities," he added.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report

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