A Voting Law Meant to Increase Minority Representation Has Generated Many More Lawsuits Than Seats for People of Color
Phil Wilon, LA Times, April 9, 2017
Two years ago, the city of Palmdale settled a lawsuit alleging that its system of electing all four council members by citywide votes was rigged against Latinos and other minorities.
In addition to a $4.5-million payout, the city agreed to scrap its “at large” voting system and create four separate council districts, including two with Latino majorities.
The result? The city had one appointed Latino council member before the rules change. It still has just one, though that member was elected.
Facing the threat of similar lawsuits under the California Voting Rights Act, several dozen cities across the state have switched from citywide elections in which all voters choose everyone on the council, to district elections in which geographically divided groups of voters each elect their own representative. And more are preparing to switch.
But those efforts have so far failed to deliver a surge of Latino political representation inside California’s city halls.
Of the 22 cities that have made the move to district elections since June, only seven saw an overall gain in Latino council members.
The threat of legal action has forced cities to switch to council districts, but in some cases the move hasn’t resulted in more minority representation because the city already is well-integrated and drawing districts where minorities predominate is difficult.
Among the cities that made the switch from “at large” citywide voting are the Central Valley city of Visalia, which moved to district elections last year after Latino residents filed a lawsuit. They noted that only one Latino had ever been elected to the five-member council even though Latinos account for 46% of the population.
Even after the switch, though, not a single Latino was elected to the council last November — and none even ran for the two districts that were up for grabs.
The push to carve cities into districts started almost 15 years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, which was intended to increase opportunities for Latinos and other minorities to elect a representative of their choice.
Advocates argued that citywide elections for all council seats can dilute the political power of voters from underrepresented groups. The law allows legal action against a local government if an attorney or resident can show an underrepresented minority has voted as a group for certain candidates, and those candidates didn’t win because voters citywide chose a different one. It applies to city councils, school districts and other government bodies with elected representatives.
California’s biggest cities — including Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco — held elections by district before the advent of the Voting Rights Act. But among California’s 482 cities, only 59 hold district elections, according to a report released in December by the government watchdog group California Common Cause.
Nine of those 59 had switched to district elections after the passage of the 2002 law until last year, when nearly two dozen suddenly made the change. At least 14 more are considering switching over the next two years and most of them are facing threats of a lawsuit if they don’t.
Eric Dunn, an attorney for the high desert city of Hesperia, said the main driver for Hesperia’s switch to district elections was the legal threat. No local government that holds citywide elections has ever won a California Voting Rights Act lawsuit, according to the League of California Cities.
“That’s tipped the scales for many cities,” Dunn said. “As the city attorney you’re in a position where you have to tell your client that your odds of winning are zero.”
Hesperia, which is nearly 50% Latino, currently has an all-white City Council. The city’s first district elections are not scheduled until 2018.
Dunn said, however, that Hesperia is so well-integrated it would be difficult to create a Latino council district that doesn’t resemble a Rorschach inkblot test — which would likely run afoul of federal voting rights law.
Hesperia began the process of moving to district elections after getting warning letters from two separate attorneys within a month. The first arrived in December 2015 from Malibu attorney Kevin Shenkman, the lead attorney in the successful lawsuit against Palmdale. The letter alleged Hesperia’s citywide voting system weakened the political influence of Latinos, and it advised the city to change to district elections.
Shenkman estimates that he’s filed roughly 10 Voting Rights Act lawsuits. He said he couldn’t remember how many warning letters he has sent to local governments, but this year alone he sent letters to Oceanside, San Marcos, Vista, Cathedral City and Fremont.
Some city officials complain that lawyers see the voting rights cases as a way to collect large attorneys’ fees. As Palmdale Mayor Jim Ledford put it: “I didn’t think the lawsuit was about anything except making money.”