Lawyers, start your meters.
It appears Sarasota County is about to be sued in federal court in the kind of case that takes years — and big bucks — to resolve.
It’s also the kind of case that takes big bucks to bring. Those look to be available in the person of Hugh Culverhouse Jr., a real estate developer and former federal prosecutor.
That would be fitting, since the lawsuit would challenge the recent redrawing of County Commission lines that commissioners say was necessitated by the change to single-member districts — which Culverhouse also helped finance.
The ACLU and NAACP are considering their legal options as well, according to news reports.
Through the 2018 election county voters had been voting for all five commissioners even though each technically represented one district. But a charter amendment that was also on the ballot last year mandated a switch to single-member districts, with voters in each district choosing only one commissioner, beginning in 2020.
The districts aren’t equal in population but that wasn’t a concern when everyone voted for all five commissioners. It might be, however, in single-member voting because a vote in a less populated district would count for a bit more than one in a more heavily populated district.
Commissioners were worried enough at the prospect they might get sued on an Equal Protection claim that they decided to undertake redistricting now rather than wait until 2021, when 2020 Census data would be available.
They did so over objections that their population data were flawed; that the existing districts are close enough in population to make redistricting unnecessary; that the redrawn district lines would disenfranchise black voters; and that the change appeared to boost the reelection chances of Commissioner Mike Moran by putting an opponent in a different district.
They were also told by lawyers and representatives of interest groups during public hearings that redistricting would result in a lawsuit.
Still, the commissioners opted to redistrict, heading off a lawsuit that no one had threatened to bring at the risk of getting embroiled in one that had all but been promised.
One basis for the suit will be the Voting Rights Act of 1965, passed to override laws adopted to deny the right to vote to minorities despite the protections of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments.
We think the word “disenfranchise” is too strong to describe the impact on black voters in Newtown who find themselves in a new district. No one is losing the right to vote as a result of the new lines or by having to wait until 2022 to vote for their commissioner instead of doing it in 2020.
Dilution of the vote is also prohibited by the Act, though, and this is where a case could be made. With Newtown in it, District 1 — Moran’s district — was about 14% black; it drops to about 3% with Newtown mostly in District 2.
There are other hurdles for a Voting Rights Act case to succeed. Whether this lawsuit — if brought — would clear them remains to be seen.
As do the bills from the lawyers, who will be the only certain “winners” in a case the County Commission brought on itself.