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County must protect the interests of minority voters

In the spirit of transparency, what's right and, in particular, what will withstand court challenges, the Erie County Legislature must respect the tenets of the federal Voting Rights Act and protect the integrity of Buffalo's minority interests when deciding its new districts.

Ethics can be debated. But federal constitutional and statutory requirements send a strong message. Ignoring them puts Erie County on the road that will almost certainly end in an embarrassing reversal in a higher court.

The New York Home Rule Statute, the state law guiding the Legislature, may be overridden by the requirements of the federal Voting Rights Act. The Voting Rights Act specifically prohibits minority vote dilution. Minorities must be given equal opportunity to participate in the political process and elect candidates of their choice.

What this means first and foremost is that members of a minority group that typically votes together should be placed together into a majority minority district whenever possible -- as long as that district satisfies certain legal requirements.

Results matter more than intentions. So even if discrimination is the last objective in anyone's mind, if the legislators draw up a plan that protects incumbents and unwittingly discriminates, anyone familiar with the Voting Rights Act will know the plan will violate Section 2 of the federal law.

In Erie County, a substantial African-American community in the City of Buffalo is currently represented by two minority legislators, Betty Jean Grant in District 7, and Chairwoman Barbara Miller-Williams in District 3. It is highly likely both are minority-preferred candidates. A redistricting plan that forces these two legislators to run against each other may result in a violation of the Voting Rights Act. In short, Section 2 might require that towns other than Buffalo and Amherst would have to be broken up, even though this would violate the New York Home Rule Law.

Make no mistake. I am not accusing anyone of discrimination. Nor do I -- at this time -- think a proposed plan violates the statute. My intention is solely to clarify the relationship between the requirements of the Voting Rights Act and the Home Rule Law as it applies to Erie County.

There is really no difference between representing communities of interest fairly and effectively as a top priority in redistricting, and representing the interests of protected minorities. The point is this: Fair and effective representation of protected minorities is a federal constitutional and statutory requirement that supersedes all state redistricting criteria. Put simply, it is legislators' top priority.

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Patrick Fitzgerald is a third-year law student at the University at Buffalo. He testified April 13 at a hearing of the Erie County Advisory Committee on Reapportionment.

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