By Adriana Maestas
Latino Policy Connection
MALDEF, the national Latino civil rights organization, has once again begun targeting California cities and school districts threatening legal action unless they change the way they conduct their elections. This strategy has been used effectively in the past by MALDEF and other civil rights organizations, to challenge mostly white policy bodies in ethnically diverse cities and districts.
The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, commonly known as MALDEF, maintains those cities and school districts are using at-large voting to weaken the electoral influence of Latinos.
This new challenge was revealed through demand letters delivered to the cities of Placentia, Eastvale, Rialto, Redlands, La Mirada, Chino Hills and Monrovia, in addition to a handful of school districts including Lawndale Elementary and Victor Valley Unified High School Districts.
- The City of Santa Monica is being sued by local activists also for alleged voting rights violations
- Fullerton is undergoing voting procedure changes because of a similar legal challenge
- Anaheim was sued by the ACLU and settled that suit by creating districts – one of which is sure to produce a Latino council member.
The MALDEF letters demand changes by these entities from at-large voting to district voting or face a legal challenge. The letters have already spurred some cities into action to change their voting procedures while some have indicated they will put the decision before their voters.
Although the numbers of Latino elected officials in this state has grown considerably since the passage of the CRVA, Latinos are still woefully under-represented in several parts of California. Last June, citing a survey by the California Latino Legislative Caucus and the Leadership California Institute, The Latino Policy Connection published a report that revealed the lack of political representation as the biggest threat to California Latino prosperity.
The Latino Policy Connection reached out to MALDEF as well as several local Latino policymakers to discuss the revival of this strategy and ask policymakers if they believed the strategy is effective. Although once praised by Latino civil rights activists, this threat of legal action to enforce voting rights apparently no longer enjoys widespread support.
In 2014 in Whittier voters approved a measure changing the way council members were elected moving from at-large to district elections. Although Latinos make up nearly two-thirds of Whittier’s population, a Latino hadn’t been elected to the council since 1989.
“Up until April 2016, our council was all Anglo. In this last election, I was able to run a campaign that focused on my side of town,” said Josue Alvarado, who was elected to represent District One in Whittier last April.
“Normally, it was the more affluent and conservative part of the city that would dominate the elections. For me, I’m a strong supporter of the district system, and I think that the City of Whittier is a good model for rolling it out. In the next election, we could even elect a Latina.”
It was a lawsuit by the Whittier Latino Coalition that lead to the change.
But not all Latino elected officials support district elections. Gloria Garcia, who is the first Latina mayor of Victorville, provided us with her perspective.
“Our city is very intermingled so I’m not sure that voting districts will make sense for Victorville. Right now we don’t have districts; we elect people to the city council at-large. I’m not sure that I’m going to be happy with a district system in my city because I don’t think that you can say that one particular area is strictly this ethnic group or that.”
Currently, there are two Latinos on the city council in Victorville. Earlier this year an attorney in Victorville sent a letter to the city saying that the at-large system dilutes the influence of African-American voters. As of the 2010 census, Victorville’s population is 48.5% white, 48.7% Latino, 16.8% African-American, 4% Asian, and 1.4% Native American.
Victorville Council Member Eric Negrete agrees with Mayor Garcia their city doesn’t need to change their voting process but he says if a study underway reveals the current voting system leaves some communities out – he’d support the change.
“Things have changed, and we are in the process of adjusting to those changes. Our community is mixed very well, and I have reached out to the African-American community. I am concerned about having our communities of color being represented. So if the study recommends at-large districts, and we have to create those, I would get behind it.”
Even in cities where Latinos dominate the city council such as El Monte, Mayor Pro Tem Victoria Martinez offered her thoughts on at-large versus district elections.
“It’s critical that those who have fought to be represented have an opportunity to collaborate with like-minded leaders to have their voices heard, and if they need to change the system to have that representation on boards, then yes, voting districts should be considered,” Martinez said.
In El Monte, Latinos constitute 69% of the population, and the next largest ethnic group is Asian at 25.1% as of the 2010 census.
Compton Community College District Trustee Sonia Lopez believes this issue is more than just about voting rights.
“I think the larger issue here is how we are engaging and motivating our communities to be involved in the electoral process. We have some of the lowest voter turnouts in history. We have elected officials in communities of color being elected by a couple hundred votes. We must do more. Our strategies must change. We need to think of the future and how we can utilize technologies that will interest our young voters, or millennials that are our future. ”
Since 2004 attorneys from MALDEF as well as from several private firms, have filed about 30 lawsuits and have sent dozens of demand letters to attempt to set in motion the creation of voting districts. Approximately 210 jurisdictions that include community college boards, city councils and other local boards, have voluntarily changed voting systems, lost or settled in court, or put the issue before voters in a referendum.
“The best thing for any city to do is not to litigate these issues or if they are faced with litigation, to resolve it quickly,” Thomas Saenz, MALDEF President and General Counsel told the Latino Policy Connection.
“MALDEF was one of the original sponsors of the CVRA (California Voting Rights Act), which applies where there is racially-polarized voting, meaning that after election after election, generally the Latino community has different views than the non-Latino community. This means that the Latino community is usually supporting different candidates and has their own preference for initiatives. In the context of racially polarized voting, an at-large system puts the Latino community or another minority group at a disadvantage because they cannot advance their preferred candidates,”
Maribel Medina, an attorney who works on issues related to voting rights, said, “I think it is vital that we ensure Latinos are properly represented at all levels of government, particularly at the local level where policy has such an impact on the day-to-day lives of Latino families.”
Medina added, “but it’s just as important – and often overlooked – to make sure there are Latinos in positions of authority as administrators, managers, and lawyers. These people actually create and enforce the policies that our elected officials will vote on.”
Once voting districts are created in places where racially polarized voting was identified, Latinos need to continue to fight for representation beyond councils and on appointed boards and at the staff level to make sure that policies are enforced. The success that cities and other jurisdictions in California have in creating more opportunities will be a model in places like Texas and Arizona where there have been efforts to limit Latino civic participation.
Adriana Maestas is a Southern California-based writer and educator.