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Feds Say Osceola County Hinders Hispanic Candidates

From the Associated Press:
ORLANDO, Fla. -- The federal government has filed suit over the way Osceola County commissioners are elected, saying the system discriminates against Hispanic candidates.

The lawsuit that the U.S. Department of Justice filed Monday in Orlando contends that the county's at-large system was adopted in 1996 "for the purpose of diluting Hispanic voting strength in violation of Section 2" of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Under the at-large system, all five commissioners are selected by voters countywide. County officials have long debated whether to adopt single-member election districts instead.

Osceola County's Hispanic population grew from 12 percent in 1990 to 35 percent last year, but only one Hispanic county commissioner was elected during that time.

Complaints from residents and information collected by officials investigating an unrelated voting issue in the county prompted the lawsuit, Justice Department spokesman Charles Miller said.

Armando Ramirez, a county resident who has run unsuccessfully for office, said he filed a complaint with the Justice Department in 2000.

"For people that are not affluent -- and of course, needless to say, that includes minorities -- it is insurmountable to engage in a political campaign countywide," Ramirez said.

County Commission Chairman Paul Owen said the county has retained outside counsel.

The county avoided a federal lawsuit in 2002 by agreeing to hire more Spanish-speaking poll workers and take additional steps to help bilingual voters.

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