Voting Rights Strategy Makes a Comeback
By Victor Abalos
When MALDEF started suing or threatening to sue cities, school districts and other public entities over possible voting rights act violations back in the 90’s, Latino and other civil rights activists cheered. While redistricting had started to address the severe lack of representation Latinos and other “minorities” were dealing with in Congress, local governments had initially escaped their attention.
And while many cities and school districts fought back, the courts gradually vindicated MALDEF and the other plaintiffs in these kinds of lawsuits. These entities were forced to create districts that slowly created opportunities for Latinos to actually win elections in cities and districts where they had significant populations. There are now hundreds of Latinos representing California cities; school, community college and water districts; and even some (although not nearly enough) counties.
We are still far from adequate representation but we’ve made significant progress.
But a curious thing happened.
When MALDEF recently decided to resurrect that strategy and send out a round of “demand letters” to local cities and school districts, several of them jumped immediately to change their voting systems from at-large to districts. Some jurisdictions didn’t even wait to get letters and started working on setting up districts. I spoke with a few lawyers who represent public entities who didn’t get letters who told me it was a simple calculation: Why resist when you’re going to lose and end up spending lots of money on legal fees?
But some cities are resisting and interestingly, those cities are currently lead by Latino policymakers. Adriana Maestas’ article in this month’s issue includes interviews with some of those officials.
Their resistance highlights the fundamental changes to our political environment that our region’s ever-changing demographics are creating – changes that are catching too many local policymakers unprepared. This situation also reveals the still unresolved tensions between ethnic and racial communities in this region that have been ignored for too long.
Victorville is one of those cities being challenged – not by MALDEF but by an attorney claiming to represent the African-American community there. Victorville is mostly Latino and white with a sizable African-American community. And while there are two Latinos on the council, there are no African-Americans.
How Victorville resolves this challenge – whether through negotiation or in the courts – provides a window into future voting rights challenges in California, and more importantly, whether Latinos policymakers now in power learn from history and provide ways for under-represented communities to have a voice. Or whether they’ll just wait to get a letter from MALDEF.
Victor Abalos is Executive Director of the Southern California Latino Policy Center and Editor of the Latino Policy Connection.