We were happy to see that University of the Virgin Islands Prof. Adam Parr agrees that our at-large system of voting creates serious imbalances in legislative apportionment. (See "Discrimination by the numbers [or not]".) The suit we filed in federal court to compel the government to create single-member "neighborhood" voting districts provides a rare opportunity to dramatically improve the quality of Virgin Islands governance.
There are dozens of forceful reasons why districting is needed, but none so unassailable as the return of the power to the people. People don't live in the Legislature; they live in communities and neighborhoods and districts, and they have a right to direct representation.
The denial of voting equality to Hispanics and whites accrues to itself the license to deny everybody's rights. And that is precisely what happened: None of us is getting good government, and every citizen in the territory is politically enfeebled by the randomness of the at-large system.
Each single-member district would send an accountable and known lawmaker to the Senate from the community, with his or her job subject to the pleasure of that particular community. As long as that senator makes his or her constituents happy, or at least not unhappy, the job is secure. (One of the wonderful side effects of redistricting would be to eliminate almost entirely the cost of senatorial political campaigns. Anyone can run.)
We sued to force districting because (a) to expect the political process to effect constructive change is to dream on, and (b) the territory is in violation of federal laws. Thus, and because of (a), the federal court is the ideal forum in which to seek to put things right.
The lawsuit, incidentally, says nothing whatsoever about who should represent whom, since that is up to the voters, not the law. A candidate's color or ethnicity is irrelevant. If a purple Martian with a political-science degree moves into the neighborhood and runs for the Senate against an aimless local jerk, people would tend to vote for the alien.
We are arguing, simply and straightforwardly, that Hispanic voters of any color and white voters (of any ethnicity) on St. Croix are denied an effective voice in government. Not just because they don't get whites or Hispanics elected, but because the at-large system of voting for senators is so dilutive of their voting strength that they can seldom elect people they favor to the Legislature. Tens of thousands of members of the electorate are being short changed, a situation that is richly prohibited under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and forbidden by the U.S. Constitution.
Our second argument is that the people of St. John are utterly disenfranchised, despite the nicety of requiring that the territorial at-large senator live on St. John. This is a political feint ginned up by Gov. Ralph Paiewonsky and friends more than 30 years ago that yet survives like some chronic and long-resigned-to physical ailment.
They reasoned — wrongly, as it turns out — that St. John could not have its own senator since its population relative to the other two islands was so minuscule. The solution was to colonize St. John. And the ultimate practical effect was to give St. Thomas eight senators. (St. Johnians were, not surprisingly, furious, and still are.) Not much of this is new ground to political observers, but the opportunity to end this odious setup is at hand.
In the St. John case (to the extent it is like others), strict adherence to numbers would not be crucial to legal reapportionment. As Prof. Parr points out: By the numbers, any senator from St. John would have to be drawn and quartered before going to work in the Legislature: "… this type of logic would suggest that the St. John group should have only 0.58 representative," Parr writes. The one-man, one-vote doctrine is not cast in stone, for obvious reasons. Courts have ruled, time and again, that where the one-man, one-vote standard flies in the face of reality, reality wins.
(There are well-established "deviations" from the standard, which is also known as "population equality," that courts have permitted, some far exceeding the disparities that would be created by having a real senator from St. John. All you have to show is a good reason for the disparity, and we have several. Exceptions arise from efforts to preserve traditional political boundaries and for variations in the interests of communities. While these both come into important play, the most compelling reason for deviation in population equality vis à vis St. John is the inescapable Caribbean Sea.)
We must be careful not to get ahead of ourselves as this vital issue is debated. The first question to be answered is: What is to be done to comply with federal law? We think it is single-member districting, and we pray the court agrees. Then comes the far more complicated process of drawing lines on the ground. We have asked the Court to appoint a panel of citizens to create the districts in order to keep the process as free as possible of politics.
Will some of these districts have majorities that are identifiable racially and ethnically? Of course; that is inevitable simply by virtue of where people choose to live. To be sure, that is also what provides the diversity that distinguishes one community from the next, each of which has a right to a voice in government. This argument, it seems to us, is unexceptionable.
Our lawsuit asserts that certain groups of people on St. Croix and all St. Johnians are being left out in the political cold by being denied certain civil rights. To remedy these grievances is to empower all other communities as well.
If the people in Mon Bijou have raw sewage flowing into their living rooms, as they currently do, the situation would be rectified in a heartbeat because they would have a man or woman in the government to get it taken care of now. If the majority of those in Frederiksted want Senator Bryan as their guy, they would get him. If the people in Christiansted want to abandon the planned disfigurement of their hillside and get Spring Gut paved instead, the senator from the Christiansted district would huddle with the Senator from the East End district, and wishes would come true.
Who gets elected when things are put right will depend not on their complexion or accent, but on how a candidate can best serve the interests of the people in his or her political community, fully aware that if the community is not profitably served, its senator will be gone with the wind. This bizarre process is known as representative democracy, and it is time to embrace it with passion.
Editor's note: Robert Hoffman and Joe San Martin, also of St. Croix, filed the referenced lawsuit.
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