California cities pushed to alter council voting


Palmdale and at least five other California cities are being pressured into changing their council voting rules in an attempt to improve election wins for minority candidates.

Other cities involved in this effort, being pressured by activists, include Modesto, Compton, Anaheim, Escondido and Whittier. Those advocating revisions want the municipalities to change election practices from at-large voting to divided geographical districts.

Ethnically diverse cities that conduct at-large elections and have few minority office holders have proved vulnerable to lawsuits under the 11-year-old California Voting Rights Act.

Palmdale, which now has a majority Latino population, has had only two Latino councilmembers in its 51-year history.

Palmdale lost a lawsuit on this matter in July. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mark V. Mooney's ruling stated that his proposed remedies would be decided later.

Palmdale officials subsequently issued a formal statement declaring their intention to appeal.

Our lead story on Friday announced that Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris is seeking to halt Palmdale's Nov. 5 city election.

Parris, along with two other attorneys representing four plaintiffs, will press for the election-halting injunction at a hearing set for Sept. 30 in Judge Mooney's court.

Palmdale Mayor Jim Ledford recently told another newspaper that the state's voting rights law has prompted a "money grab" by lawyers. He said he can't explain why Palmdale, whose population is almost 55% Latino and nearly 15% black, has not elected more minority candidates.

"We go for the best and the brightest," Ledford said.

"I can't speak for the message of the candidates or their ability to raise the funds to run," the mayor said.

According to legal experts, all a plaintiff must prove is to demonstrate that racially polarized voting exists - and often that can be done with voting numbers that reveal contrasting results between predominantly minority precincts and white ones.

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

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."

The state's counties and most of its largest cities, including Los Angeles, San Diego, and Long Beach, elect councilmembers by geographic districts.

At this point, it's hard to predict the outcomes of these efforts.

It's not clear that breaking municipalities into voting districts would result in more minority candidates winning council and mayoral seats.

The voters have the final say on election days, and qualified, hard-campaigning and well-financed candidates should be able to win in either at-large voting or in geographical districts.


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