A ‘low-prof ile’ revo­lu­tion’ helps change the face of lo­cal gov­ern­ments

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - Opinion - BY DAN WAL­TERS CALmat­ters Colum­nist CALmat­ters is a pub­lic in­ter­est journalism ven­ture com­mit­ted to ex­plain­ing how Cal­i­for­nia’s state Capi­tol works and why it mat­ters. For more sto­ries by Dan Wal­ters, go to calmat­ters.org/ com­men­tary

Santa Monica, one of the state’s most left-lean­ing cities, would seem to be an un­likely arena for a court bat­tle over racial dis­crim­i­na­tion.

How­ever, in a trial this month, the city de­fends elect­ing city coun­cil mem­bers “at large” by all vot­ers, rather than from dis­tricts. A law­suit con­tends that the sys­tem dis­crim­i­nates against Lati­nos and other non­white res­i­dents.

It’s the lat­est of many le­gal chal­lenges to lo­cal gov­ern­ments un­der the Cal­i­for­nia Vot­ing Rights Act, a 2002 law that makes it eas­ier to over­turn at-large vot­ing.

His­tor­i­cally, at-large elec­tions were the norm in Cal­i­for­nia for nearly 150 years. How­ever, dur­ing the late 20th cen­tury, as Cal­i­for­nia’s pop­u­la­tion be­came much more di­verse, they drew in­creas­ingly sharp crit­i­cism, par­tic­u­larly from ac­tivists in the rapidly in­creas­ing Latino com­mu­nity.

At-large elec­tions, crit­ics said, of­ten meant that white — and im­plic­itly con­ser­va­tive mem­bers — dom­i­nated city coun­cils, school boards and other gov­ern­ing bod­ies, even in com­mu­ni­ties with sub­stan­tial non­white pop­u­la­tions.

Stock­ton Uni­fied School Dis­trict changed to dis­trict vot­ing in re­sponse to a seg­re­ga­tion law­suit in the early 1970s. In the 1980s, the Mex­i­canAmer­i­can Le­gal De­fense and Ed­u­ca­tion Fund won a land­mark le­gal vic­tory over­turn­ing Watsonvill­e’s at-large elec­tions in a case that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

As Latino rep­re­sen­ta­tion in the state Leg­is­la­ture grew in the 1990s — thanks largely to term lim­its and court-or­dered redis­trict­ing af­ter the 1990 cen­sus — the bat­tle over at-large elec­tions shifted to the Capi­tol, cul­mi­nat­ing in pas­sage of the Cal­i­for­nia Vot­ing Rights Act in 2002. The new law de­clared that “an at-large method of elec­tion may not be im­posed or ap­plied in a man­ner that im­pairs the abil­ity of a pro­tected class to elect can­di­dates of its choice or its abil­ity to in­flu­ence the out­come of an elec­tion ...” It also al­lowed law­suits to en­force the new stan­dard.

The new law did not have in­stan­ta­neous ef­fect, as po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tists Justin Le­vitt and Dou­glas John­son point out in a 2016 re­search pa­per. It took four years for le­gal chal­lenges to the CVRA to be swept away, but af­ter Modesto ceded a suit in 2008 — and had to pay $3 mil­lion in le­gal fees — the pace be­gan to pick up.

Some cities, like Santa Monica, still re­sisted; Palm­dale, for in­stance, had to shell out $4.5 mil­lion in 2015. But most set­tled CVRA de­mands or suits rather than bear the heavy cost of le­gal bat­tles they’d prob­a­bly lose.

Kevin Shenkman, a Mal­ibu at­tor­ney, has made a prof­itable ca­reer out of press­ing cities for change. He sends de­mand let­ters to tar­geted cities and col­lects a small fee if they read­ily agree to change their vot­ing meth­ods. If they refuse, he sues and, as with his case against Palm­dale, of­ten col­lects mul­ti­mil­lion­dol­lar fees.

Le­vitt and John­son, in up­dat­ing their 2016 study this year, found that while just 29 of the state’s roughly 400 in­cor­po­rated cities used dis­trict vot­ing prior to the law’s pas­sage, 96 now have made or are mak­ing the switch, plus 169 school dis­tricts, about 30 com­mu­nity col­lege dis­tricts and more than as dozen spe­cial pur­pose dis­tricts.

The only county that had been us­ing at-large vot­ing, San Ma­teo, has also switched.

Latino mem­bers of lo­cal gov­ern­ing boards have in­creased, as spon­sors of the law in­tended.

Whether it’s brought a bet­ter level of gov­er­nance re­mains to be seen. More di­verse boards could also be more frag­mented, more parochial and less re­spon­sive to over­all com­mu­nity needs.It is, as Le­vitt and John­son say, “a low-pro­file revo­lu­tion,” and like all rev­o­lu­tions will prob­a­bly have un­in­tended con­se­quences, and per­haps col­lat­eral dam­age.

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