Dan Walters

Dan Walters: New bill seeks to expand state’s voting rights act

Dan Walters
Dan Walters

The U.S. Supreme Court, by a 5-4 vote, struck down a portion of the federal Voting Rights Act last year, saying its 1960s-era provisions were no longer applicable to 21st-century conditions.

The invalidated section required voting changes in nine Southern states to receive pre-clearance from the federal courts or the U.S. Justice Department, including the redrawing of legislative, congressional and local government districts. But its rigid voting history formula also was applied elsewhere, including four counties in California.

The practical effect was that any changes of election procedures in those counties, as well as any statewide redistricting plan, had to be pre-cleared – which became a political factor in the Capitol’s decennial redistricting wrangle.

Those four rural counties – Kings, Merced, Monterey and Yuba – have large Latino populations.

All four also had, during the 1960s, large military installations with large contingents of nonvoting personnel, and it’s been well proven that those two factors created an arithmetic anomaly that subjected the four to the Voting Rights Act’s provisions while exempting other counties.

The oversight continued for decades – even after Latino voting rates increased and even after two bases, Castle Air Force Base in Merced and Fort Ord in Monterey, had closed. It took years, but Merced finally was granted an exemption and a few communities within Yuba County, home to Beale AFB, were as well.

The highly controversial Supreme Court decision ends that oversight and so far, efforts to restore the invalidated provision in Congress have failed.

However, state Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Los Angeles, wants to expand the California Voting Rights Act, enacted 13 years ago, to insert judges into drawing city council, county supervisor and other local voting districts.

Latino rights groups have employed California’s law to challenge the “at large” election of local government officials, without individual districts, contending that the system effectively disenfranchises non-white communities. In response, local officials have been drawing districts for their councils and boards.

Padilla’s Senate Bill 1365, if enacted, would allow courts to intervene in drawing a local district if it “impairs the ability of a protected class to elect candidates of its choice or its ability to influence the outcome of an election.”

The bill is a priority for the Legislature’s Latino Caucus, and its backers contend it would be a check on racial gerrymandering. It could also enhance Padilla’s campaign for secretary of state.

At the very least, however, it would complicate the already fractious and highly politicized redistricting of large cities and counties, such as the perpetual angst over crafting five supervisorial districts in Los Angeles County.