Posted on September 16, 2013

Voting Rights Act Leading California Cities to Dump At-Large Elections

Jean Merl, Los Angeles Times, September 14, 2013

First came Modesto. Then Compton, Anaheim, Escondido, Whittier, Palmdale and others were pushed into the growing ranks of California cities under pressure to change how they elect their city councils.

Activists seeking minority representation on those councils are clamoring to have members elected by geographic district. Ethnically diverse cities that hold at-large elections and have few minority officeholders have proved vulnerable to lawsuits under the 11-year-old California Voting Rights Act.

All a plaintiff has to do, experts say, is demonstrate that racially polarized voting exists — and often that can be done with election results that reveal contrasting outcomes between predominantly minority precincts and white ones.

Across California, community college and school districts are making the switch.

“We’re seeing easily the biggest shift” since the Progressives ushered in at-large elections nearly a century ago, said Douglas Johnson, president of the research firm National Demographics Corp. and a fellow at the Rose Institute of State and Local Government at Claremont McKenna College.

California’s counties and most of its largest cities, including Los Angeles, San Diego and Long Beach, elect council members by geographic district. But in scores of other towns, voters get a say about everyone on the ballot — which, advocates of such at-large systems say, provides better accountability and less balkanization.

Johnson said the voting rights law is overly broad and vague: “It offers very little guidance, and a lot of districts are changing just to avoid lawsuits.”

But cities have been more reluctant.

Compton, with a majority Latino population and a mostly African American power structure, switched to geographic representation only after a lawsuit settlement. So did Escondido. Palmdale, which lost a lawsuit in July, has vowed to appeal. Anaheim, facing a trial, tried in vain to appease plaintiffs by requiring that candidates live in designated districts, although they still would be elected at large.

Whittier, sued last month by Latino activists who said they had tried for years to get representation on that city’s council, will ask voters to settle the matter in a special election in June. {snip}

No one has done a comprehensive study of the voting rights law’s effect, experts say, and it is unclear how much difference a switch in formats makes for minority candidates.

But no local government has won a state voting rights lawsuit, and jurisdictions that can’t demonstrate fair treatment of minorities in at-large election systems must pay plaintiffs’ legal fees, said consultant Paul Mitchell, whose Sacramento-based Redistricting Partners has helped several local governments make the change.

Palmdale Mayor Jim Ledford said the state’s voting rights law has prompted a “money grab” by lawyers. He said he can’t explain why Palmdale, whose population is almost 55% Latino and nearly 15% black, has elected only one Latino and no African Americans to its council.

“We go for the best and brightest,” Ledford told The Times after a judge found his city in violation of the law. “I can’t speak for the message of the candidates or their ability to raise the funds to run.”