Civil rights challenges test racially polarized cities
Advocacy groups demanding civil rights in both Monrovia and Arcadia are testing new state regulations designed to eliminate racially polarized city governments.
Alterations in the California Voting Rights Act essentially made it easier for groups like the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund (MALDEF) and the Chinese American Equalization Association (HQH) to effect changes at the municipal level in those communities where voters choose their city councils in at-large elections, said Eric Lindgren, the Carroll Professor of Urban Politics at the University of Oregon.
Those changes, via SB 493, signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2015, permit the city councils of general law cities with populations of fewer than 100,000 residents to change the city’s method of election without asking for voter approval.
As a result, civil rights challenges throughout California will become more common, Lindgren said. The change means many cities will avoid costly litigation and seek settlements in voting rights cases.
“The most efficient, cost-effect and politically advantageous way for cities to handle these types of legal challenges is to voluntarily switch to district-based elections,” Lindgren said.
In 2014, Lindgren’s research was pivotal in a voting rights lawsuit against the city of Whittier. It demonstrated that Whittier’s voting at-large voting system prevented Hispanic candidates from winning elections to the City Council. If demand letters have been sent to cities other cities with at-large systems, it’s likely civil rights are being denied he said.
HQH President Ted Tian said other San Gabriel Valley communities could come under scrutiny.
There are communities where at-large elections seem to work. Take San Marino. More than 50 percent of the city’s 13,000-plus residents are Asian-American, and it uses an at-large system. That system could come under fire as nearby cities draw districts. But San Marino has three Asian-Americans on its city council. A history of diverse city councils is a good defense for cities under threat of litigation, Lindgren said.
Sierra Madre could also be scrutinized. City Manager Elaine Aguilar said there is no current litigation or any plan to divide the city, which has a population that is 80 percent white, into districts.
— By Hugo Guzman, correspondent