Dan Walters

Dan Walters: Bill would expand courts’ authority over local government districts

Dan Walters
Dan Walters

The California Voting Rights Act was signed by then-Gov. Gray Davis in 2002, but it was years before it began to have real-world impacts.

Latino rights groups began utilizing it to sue, or threaten to sue, local governments – cities and school districts – that had been electing their governing boards “at-large” by voters throughout the entity, rather than from single-member districts.

At-large voting, activists said, often made it difficult, if not impossible, for minority communities to elect representatives to the boards. And in the main, the lawsuits and lawsuit threats have worked, compelling dozens of entities to change their voting methods.

Just last month, the state Supreme Court declared that Palmdale, a desert city north of Los Angeles, must shift to district voting. The court refused to overturn a lower court’s finding that racially polarized voting patterns disenfranchised blacks and Latinos.

The ruling came just weeks after Santa Barbara was sued on similar grounds.

Counties and larger cities and school districts have been electing board members by district for decades, and it’s generally not an issue in small ones, so the chief targets of suits have been medium-sized cities such as Palmdale and Santa Barbara.

With the Supreme Court ruling, there’s every reason to believe that in a few years, district voting will become widespread. But that also raises new issues: Who will draw the new (and existing) districts, and what will be the criteria?

State Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Los Angeles, who wants to become the state’s chief election officer as secretary of state, has responded to the questions with Senate Bill 1365, now sitting on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk, awaiting signature or veto.

It would expand the 2002 voting law to require that the shape of districts (or wards) cannot impair the ability of a “protected class” of voters to elect candidates of their choice, empowering judges to intervene and impose new district maps or even change the size of governing boards.

The latter provision appears aimed at Los Angeles County, where Latino activists have chafed at holding just one of the five seats on the Board of Supervisors under maps drawn by the board itself, even though Latinos make up nearly half of the county’s population.

If the bill becomes law, a judge could order the board expanded to seven, nine or even more seats to meet its requirements.

In the main, groups representing interests of nonwhite population groups back the bill and want it signed.

However, a few rights advocates have written to Brown, contending that the Padilla bill goes way beyond the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions on the federal Voting Rights Act – by calling for districts to be drawn along racial/ethnic lines, for instance – and could put the entire California law in legal jeopardy.