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State Supreme Court Upholds California Voting Rights Act.

Law allows voters to challege at-large elections over minority representation

From the Associated Press on

FRESNO — A state law allowing voters to challenge at-large elections systems on the basis that they dilute the strength of minority voters will stand, after the California Supreme Court declined to review the case Wednesday.

The high court’s refusal to hear the case leaves intact an appeals court ruling that upheld the 2001 California Voting Rights Act.

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights sued the city of Modesto in 2004 on behalf of Hispanic voters there, charging that electing city council members to at-large seats instead of from districts diminished the strength of their votes. Though the city is one-quarter Hispanic, just one Hispanic has been elected to Modesto’s five-member city council since 1911.

The city argued that the California Voting Rights Act, which the plaintiffs relied on to demand change, was unconstitutional because it benefited certain racial groups.

“This is a badly written statute that imperils the use of at-large elections by any city, school district or special district in California,” said John McDermott, who represented the city.

A Stanislaus County judge agreed and invalidated the act, saying it violated equal protection clauses of the state and federal constitutions.

But in December, the 5th District Court of Appeal held that the law did not create a system of reverse discrimination because it “does not favor any race over others,” and was “race-neutral.”

Modesto officials will have to decide whether they want to file a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court asking for a review on constitutional grounds, McDermott said. If not, the plaintiffs’ case could proceed to trial in Stanislaus County Superior Court.

City Attorney Susana Alcala Wood did not immediately return calls seeking comment.

Plaintiffs’ attorney Robert Rubin said Wednesday’s decision by the state justices “bodes well for fair and just representation of all people so that one person’s vote is not diluted as a result of their race.”

The case is Sanchez v. City of Modesto, S149500.

This could have impact in OC.  In Garden Grove for example there is no Latino representation on the City Council, but an over representation of Vietnamese elected officials.  Part of the problem is the amount of money required to successfully run for Council in a city wide election. District level elections would enhance direct representation for all areas of a city, not just those where the most affluent people live. 

The similar dynamic occurs in cities where candidates are chosen to represent wards but elected city-wide. This appears to be the case in Santa Ana where we have an entirely Latino City Council in a very demographically diverse city.  This is partly due to the reality that in a city with a clear majority of one ethnicity, money isn’t the only thing that has an impact.

So Readers… What do you think?

One Comment

  1. Gary Kephart Gary Kephart March 23, 2007

    This also occurs at the school board level, not only at the city level. For instance, Capo USD trustees are elected to represent one of seven trustee districts, but are elected by the whole school district.
    I agree that district level elections would be more representative, but not all cities have districts. Further, there may be a mismatch of seats to districts. Since I live in Ladera Ranch, I’ll use that example. The HOA board has five seats, two of which belong to DMB Ladera, and the other three to residents. However, there are nine districts, or “villages” as they are called.
    I’m not sure how the wards in Santa Ana are defined. Are they defined by geography, population, or something else? Are those wards “politically equal”?

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