An absentee vote for redistricting

Once again, a District 5 election came down to the candidate able to collect the most absentee ballots

U.S. District Judge G. Kendall Sharp said that it was mostly curiosity that led him to set aside time last Thursday to hear a lawsuit seeking to stop this week's runoff election for an Orlando City Council seat.

"The court has not been able to figure out what this case is all about," Sharp told the small group of attorneys and city officials in his courtroom. Indeed, while the lawsuit involved the voting rights of the African-American residents who dominate District 5, only one showed up.

No one expected anything to come of the motion sought by Gainesville attorney Gabe Kaimowitz, whose persistent, unfocused charges of racism against the city over the past decade have caused him to be dismissed by municipal leaders.

In fact, during his 40-minute argument before Sharp, Kaimowitz himself summarized his role in civic affairs this way: "The veneer `of racial harmony` is clear. Everybody gets what they want. And I look foolish."

As expected, Sharp ruled against the quixotic Kaimowitz. And in the runoff Tuesday, Daisy Lynum beat Charlie Jean Salter, according to unofficial results. Still both candidates' tallies bolstered Kaimowitz's assertions that the district's shape improperly accentuates the importance of absentee vote-getting. Election night tallies showed Salter received 524 of 678 votes via absentee. But Lynum managed to outdo her opponent on both counts, garnering 582 absentee and 1,028 total votes.)

So, while Kaimowitz's legal arguments were dismissed and the election was held, serious questions persist about the implications of the erratic shape of this district on the residents of Orlando's west side and the city at large.

District 5 continues to lead the city in some dubious categories. According to 1990 census data, more than half of district households earned less than $15,000 a year (The 1990 poverty level was $13,600 for a family of four), only 25 percent of the district' s homes are owner-occupied and only 61.5 percent of its residents are employed.

In the courtroom, Kaimowitz was limited to legal arguments that the district's shape has compromised residents' representation on City Council.

Among those attending the hearing was Assistant Attorney General George Waas, who described himself as a veteran of more than a decade of voting-rights litigation. City Attorney Scott Gabrielson listened in on the proceedings from the gallery, while his assistant, Mary Pappas Vilmos, brought the city's case. Also listening carefully was a group of city clerks and attorneys responsible for carrying off the election.

After insisting his office should not be part of the case, Waas nonetheless launched into an extended explanation of why Kaimowitz's motion failed to meet the standards required to stop the election. In support of his oratory, Kaimowitz only offered maps demonstrating the irregular shape the district has taken since its boundaries were redrawn in 1992. To succeed, Waas said, Kaimowitz would have needed data, statistics, anecdotal accounts --hard proof, in other words.

"It must be more than emotion. It must be more than conjecture," says Waas. "We have none of that here." Then after laying out the key points of the case, Waas reminded Sharp that -- although he saw fit to emphasize the weaknesses of Kaimowitz's case -- his office and the Secretary of State had no reason to be part of the case.

In closing, Kaimowitz charged the district lines demonstrated "we have the preservation of the Old South." Rather than continue this segregated approach, he urged Sharp to stop the "phony election" -- which once again was won by the candidate able to gather the largest number of absentee ballots from the various far-flung corners of the district.

Other judges have ordered the redrawing of voting boundaries -- like District 5's -- set expressly to ensure black representation. But Sharp declined to make such a call. And city officials say they have no plans to change the boundaries any time soon.

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