When Maria del Rosario Palacios votes in Gainesville’s municipal election this November she’ll get to do something most folks never get to do: vote for herself on the ballot. But, there’s something even more unusual about this opportunity.
Not only is she a candidate for Gainesville’s Ward 4 seat, this will also be her first time voting in an American election. Yes, her first time ever. Palacios only became a naturalized citizen in June of this year.
“Since I just became naturalized, the very first election I am going to vote in is an election where I am a candidate,” Palacios explained in an interview with Better Georgia.
But Palacios is facing a challenging political landscape in Gainesville: at-large voting, as recently reported on by the Gainesville Times. The city is divided into five wards, with each member of city council living in and representing one of the wards. However, everyone in the city votes for every single city councilor (and, of course, the mayor).
What this means, Palacios explained, is that some wards are over-represented in the voting population, and candidates have to be able to fundraise for a city-wide campaign. This can make it challenging for new candidates to get involved.
“When you don’t have someone who has a loud voice for a district’s interests, those interests can be often overlooked, especially when you have to compete for votes in other districts where it’s much more voter rich,” Palacios said.
“Fundraising for campaigns, resources for campaigns, if you want to win in any ward you have to be able to fund a campaign as if it was a city-wide election, like a mayoral race, and that should not be the case for people trying to enter city council,” she added.
Palacios cited the fact that the majority of the voters in municipal elections come from just two of the five wards.
“In the last two municipal elections — so 2013 and 2015 — two thirds of the votes, of the people who voted were from two districts in the city,” she said.
Palacios currently works as the Program Coordinator for Leadership Development and Policy for GALEO, the Georgia Alliance for Latino Elected Officials, a group focused on the civic engagement of Georgia’s latino communities. Palacios work and campaign, however, are being kept very separate, as GALEO is a non-partisan organization.
And separate from both her roles — as a candidate and program coordinator — GALEO has been involved in challenging the voting at-large issue since at least 2013. They initiated a lawsuit against the city of Gainesville challenging the legality of at-large voting in the city.
The mayor and city council are mostly white, while the city is mostly made up of people of color.
Palacios spoke about how Gainesville has become very diverse over the past few years. Currently, the city is already a so-called “majority-minority” place, that is people of color make up the majority of the population. Latinos make up 42 percent of the population, African-Americans make up 16 percent, and Asian-Americans make up 3.5 percent. The remaining 38 percent of the population is white.
However, the mayor and four of the five city councilors are all white men; the mayor pro-tem is a white woman, and the councilor for Ward 3 is a black woman.
“We are becoming very diverse, and we don’t always have elected officials of choice. Especially when, you know, with the at-large voting system a couple districts in the city out-vote all the other districts and the district that is being represented,” Palacios said.
The lawsuit is currently in the deposition phase, the Gainesville Time reports. Meanwhile, Palacios faces incumbent George Wangemann and challenger Albert Reeves in the municipal election which takes place November 7.