ALBANY — A federal appeals court on Tuesday backed a lower court’s decision not to halt last year’s County Legislature elections based on a lawsuit alleging voting rights violations in the county’s redistricting plan.
The 31-page ruling by the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals appears to be a victory for the county’s controversial plan, under which the current 39 legislators were elected in November.
But the attorney representing the three women alleging the maps violate the federal Voting Rights Act contends the decision contains key provisions that will only strengthen their case at trial — including that the federal courts have the power to vacate last year’s elections and reboot the whole process.
In the suit, the plaintiffs — now-former Legislator Wanda Willingham, legislative candidate Janis Gonzalez and a local NAACP leader Anne Pope — allege the county’s redistricting commission did not do everything it could to create a fifth legislative district in the city that had a majority of minority voters.
The case hinges on thorny issues such as who, in the eyes of voting rights law, should count as “black” and whether the city’s fast-growing Hispanic population should be included for the purposes of drawing district lines.
And the divergent interpretations of the appeals court’s findings are just the latest wrinkle in the contentious process of redrawing the county’s political map in line with the 2010 Census — a process that has twice before in prior decades ended with the courts requiring the county increase the number of minority districts.