White-Dominated California Boards Face Legal Threats over Racial Makeup

Will Evans, Sacramento Bee, March 11, 2012

Compton City Councilwoman Janna Zurita owes her Hispanic last name to a grandmother from Spain, whom she never met. Zurita considers her mother black and said her father “wants to be black” even though he “looks Latino.”


While Zurita takes a sometimes-playful approach to her racial identity, it became the serious subject of a recent lawsuit under the California Voting Rights Act. In January, a judge ruled that a trial would be necessary to figure out whether Zurita could be considered Latina and whether that means Latinos have a voice on the council. The city settled the suit late last month.

The legal gymnastics in Compton illustrate California’s far-reaching law, which bars local governments from diluting the voting strength of minorities. The law has become the foundation of a burgeoning onslaught of legal threats that could upend the racial makeup of elected bodies throughout the state.

Armed with 2010 census data, a network of attorneys is increasingly targeting local governments, from cities and school boards to hospital and community college districts, for not reflecting the demographics of their constituents.


Particularly striking against this backdrop are the 14 cities in California where all-white councils preside over communities where either Latinos or Asians make up the majority of residents. Several are clustered in the Los Angeles area, like Whittier and Arcadia, but they range from Tulelake, on the Oregon border, to Holtville, near the Mexican border.

Another 20 cities have Latino majorities and only one minority on the city council.


California Watch was able to identify the 34 cities with data from Redistricting Partners and another consulting group, GrassrootsLab. But the cities represent one end of a spectrum. Numerous other communities, with smaller minority populations or more diversity on the city council, also could be subject to a suit under the California Voting Rights Act, which was signed by Gov. Gray Davis in 2002.

The law prohibits local governments from holding at-large elections—in which the entire community votes for a slate of candidates—if that system weakens the ability of minorities to elect candidates of their choice.

An elected board can be found in violation if voting statistics show the community polarized along racial lines. That happens, for example, when Latinos vote more than their white neighbors for Latino candidates.

Cities, school districts and other elected boards that violate the act can be forced to divide their communities with district elections, in which different areas elect their own representatives. That way, districts with a high concentration of minorities could more easily elect one of their own.

California’s law is grounded in the idea that minorities sometimes vote differently from the rest of the population and that at-large elections, where the majority rules, can unfairly dilute their influence. The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld that underlying notion in cases interpreting the federal Voting Rights Act.

Indeed, in many parts of the state, including throughout Los Angeles County, Californians do tend to vote for candidates of their same race, according to research by Matt Barreto, who served as an independent expert to the state redistricting commission. {snip}

The act was drafted by Joaquin Avila, a Seattle-based voting rights attorney, and Robert Rubin, who until recently was legal director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area. The duo have gone on to sue school districts and cities, racking up millions of dollars and sparking accusations that they were in it for the money.


A series of court victories and settlements has created a ripple effect in which many school districts are switching to district elections voluntarily rather than face expensive lawsuits. Since 2009, nearly 70 school boards applied with the state Board of Education to make the switch, the majority of them just this year.


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