A federal district judge on Wednesday shot down an attempt by two white St. Gabriel residents seeking to change how the city elects its council members by creating a majority-white voting district in the majority-black city.
In his ruling, Chief U.S. District Judge Brian Jackson, of the U.S. Middle District Court in Louisiana, said the two St. Gabriel residents, Milisa C. York and Barry B. Leblanc, fell short of proving the city’s current at-large voting system deprives them of voting rights afforded by the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the 14th and 15th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.
The lawsuit sought to have the city’s voting system divided into several districts that would have included a majority-white district. In the current system, there is essentially only one district — the entire city — from which all five City Council members are elected. All five current members are black.
The ruling comes a few weeks before St. Gabriel residents are scheduled to vote for a new City Council on March 28. Only one white resident qualified for the ballot.
Jackson said in the ruling that the plaintiffs failed to meet all three conditions necessary to prove their voting rights were being violated. In particular, York and Leblanc failed to prove that the white minority group of St. Gabriel was “politically cohesive,” one of the three requirements needed to prove a rights violation, Jackson ruled.
In the ruling, Jackson referenced how white voter turnout in St. Gabriel has waned over the past decade while black voter turnout has increased. There also has been a dearth of white candidates to choose from in past City Council elections, the ruling says.
In 2000, St. Gabriel’s population was 72 percent black and 27 percent white, according to U.S. census data. By 2010, the city’s population slightly shifted to 64 percent black and 34 percent white.
The issue in St. Gabriel is almost a mirror image of the debate in Denham Springs, where at-large voting has resulted in an all-white council whose members also live close to one another. There, the Livingston Parish chapter of the NAACP has called for the city to introduce voting districts.
Dannie Garrett, the attorney representing York and Leblanc, said Thursday that despite the ruling, he and his clients hope the City Council will consider creating a multidistrict voting system.
“That’s really the better way to provide representation to those minority citizens, Garrett said.
Advocate staff writer Terry Jones contributed to this report.