Voting Rights Act Lawsuits Leading California Cities to End At-Large Elections

Activists seeking minority representation on those councils are clamoring to have members elected by geographic district. Ethnically diverse cities that hold at-large elections and have few minority officeholders have proved vulnerable to lawsuits under the 11-year-old California Voting Rights Act.
September 16, 2013

First came Modesto. Then Compton, Anaheim, Escondido, Whittier, Palmdale and others were pushed into the growing ranks of California cities under pressure to change how they elect their city councils.

Activists seeking minority representation on those councils are clamoring to have members elected by geographic district. Ethnically diverse cities that hold at-large elections and have few minority officeholders have proved vulnerable to lawsuits under the 11-year-old California Voting Rights Act.

All a plaintiff has to do, experts say, is demonstrate that racially polarized voting exists — and often that can be done with election results that reveal contrasting outcomes between predominantly minority precincts and white ones.

Across California, community college and school districts are making the switch.

"We're seeing easily the biggest shift" since the Progressives ushered in at-large elections nearly a century ago, said Douglas Johnson, president of the research firm National Demographics Corp. and a fellow at the Rose Institute of State and Local Government at Claremont McKenna College.

California's counties and most of its largest cities, including Los Angeles, San Diego and Long Beach, elect council members by geographic district. But in scores of other towns, voters get a say about everyone on the ballot— which, advocates of such at-large systems say, provides better accountability and less balkanization.

Johnson said the voting rights law is overly broad and vague: "It offers very little guidance, and a lot of districts are changing just to avoid lawsuits."

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