Viewpoints: Give Califoria voters power to challenge unfair districts

This month, more than 500,000 Americans petitioned Congress to restore the right to vote for all by passing the Voting Rights Amendment Act. Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s destructive decision last year in the Shelby County v. Holder case, voters have been pushing Congress to take action to protect Americans from discrimination at the ballot box.

But Congress shows no signs of acting – despite having a bipartisan bill ready to be debated, discussed and moved forward. There has been only one hearing in the Senate, and not a single hearing in the House. Voters will head to the polls in November with potentially discriminatory voting changes left unchecked.

We don’t have to look far to see examples of how election rules are regularly manipulated to freeze voters out of our democracy. As our national focus turned to racial unrest in Ferguson, Mo., we learned that the Ferguson City Council’s lack of adequate representation of the African American majority was directly connected to the political choice of odd-year elections that severely depressed voter turnout.

One area where election manipulation runs rampant – even in California cities, even today – is redistricting. When it comes to that age-old practice of politicians drawing their own district lines, the ugly problems of racism and incumbency protection mix to form a potent cocktail that is fundamentally anti-democratic.

We are regularly confronted with evidence of how Latinos, African Americans and other minorities continue to be blocked from representation at the local level because of political mischief. Unless that is challenged in court, public outcry against splitting minority communities usually leads only to cosmetic changes. This is no better than trusting the foxes to rearrange the coops in the henhouse.

There is hope, however. We are heartened to see the opportunity to address these problems with legislation in California.

Senate Bill 1365 would give local communities the power to challenge racial gerrymanders that cut up or pack their communities into districts in ways that take away their power to choose who represents them. California can once again lead the way where Washington has failed.

Currently, the only way to challenge these discriminatory gerrymanders, often accomplished to protect powerful incumbent politicians, is to file a lawsuit under Section 2 of the federal Voting Rights Act. These lawsuits are an extremely time-consuming and expensive way to address voting discrimination. SB 1365 would streamline the resolution of these cases and hasten the redrawing of lines under court supervision.

The burden of protecting the fundamental right to fair representation should not be so heavily weighted against citizens. This bill restores a proper balance by giving citizens fair access to the tools and remedies they need to fight unlawful discrimination in voting.

The additional beauty of SB 1365 is that it would give communities the ability to also seek alternative solutions. State Assembly and Senate districts have been drawn by an independent commission of citizens; communities can seek a similar solution to local redistricting problems. Communities in cities whose leaders have manipulated election dates to keep the turnout low could demand that elections be held on regular dates. One thing we have learned about judges is that in redistricting cases, they are very cautious. They tend to craft remedies that are carefully tailored to the problem.

California has always been the state of innovation. We championed and won groundbreaking initiatives – Propositions 11 and 20 – that gave the power to draw legislative and congressional district lines to the people. We think SB 1365 is just the sort of innovative response to the age-old problem of race and politics that the governor should champion.