Estimate: The Emergence of an Issue
FRANK J. MAURO
Early in its deliberations, the New York City Charter Revision Commission decided to respond to the Morris v. Board of Estimate decision by placing its primary focus on the major functions of the Board of Estimate—budgeting, contracting, land use, and franchising. Its goal was to determine how each of these critical processes should best be organized and conducted. While emphasizing this functional approach, the commission also voted to include the more general topic of the structure and election of the Board of Estimate on its research agenda.
During the summer of 1987, concomitantly with the commencement of its studies of the board's major functions, the commission staff began analyzing the various proposals that had been advanced for complying with the one-person, one-vote principle by changing the board's voting structure, its composition, or both. As part of this analysis, the staff attempted to identify the various legal requirements that a new system would have to satisfy. Because the Voting Rights Act of 1965 requires some jurisdictions, including New York City, to obtain advance federal approval (known as "preclearance") of proposed changes in the stucture or powers of elected offices, it was clear that particular attention needed to be given to the act's provisions and to the manner in which they had been applied in the past. 1
The central question under the Voting Rights Act is whether a governmental system abridges the right of racial and language minorities to fair and effective political representation. Put another way, the act seeks to ensure that minorities have an equal opportunity to participate in electoral politics and to elect representatives of their choice. The courts, in determining whether particular governmental stuctures violate the Voting Rights Act, have scrutinized systems involving at-large (jurisdictionwide) elections and unusually large electoral districts. Such systems are viewed with concern because substantial minority populations may be "submerged" within a citywide or other large district and thereby be effectively precluded from electing representatives of their choice. This "submergence" of minority voting power was also a major focus of the 1982 amendments of the act, Congress's most recent changes to it.