California Could Take Big Step to Address Voting Rights

"I Voted" stickers to promote voter turnout on election day. photo credit: brianjmatis via photopin cc
“I Voted” stickers to promote voter turnout on election day.
photo credit: brianjmatis via photopin cc

by Jeremy Loudenback

Earlier this month, the California Supreme Court disqualified a bid endorsed by Democratic state lawmakers that would have allowed an advisory measure on the 2014 ballot in reaction to the Supreme Court’s Citizen United decision that allows unlimited campaign donations from corporations and unions.

Proposition 49 would have asked the state’s voters about their support for a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court’s controversial 2010 decision. A majority of the California court, though, maintained that the advisory nature of the proposed proposition was not in line with a ballot-measure system that usually asks voters to weigh in on changes to state law.

Despite the demise of Proposition 49, it’s not the only contentious California measure with a tie to the highest court in the land.

SB 1365, a proposed bill that would bolster the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA), passed both chambers of the California legislature this month and now awaits a decision from Governor Jerry Brown. State Senator Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima), who introduced the bill, has said that SB 1365 was inspired by last year’s Supreme Court decision (Shelby County v. Holder) that struck down key provisions of the federal Voting Rights Act.

Padilla’s bill would grant additional powers to the CVRA that would empower judges to redraw district lines and add seats to ensure that the voting rights of minorities and other communities are not diminished by gerrymandering.

Since 2001, the CVRA has sought to protect the voting rights of minorities by making it easier for them to sue municipalities that use at-large voting systems. An at-large electoral system allows voters from across a city or district to vote for all candidates for office, and candidates do not represent any particular area or part of the district. Studies have  that at-large voting often suppresses the voting rights of minority groups and can hinder the ability of school boards, cities, and counties to fairly represent minority communities. (To wit, some pundits have linked the lack of African-American political representation in Ferguson, Missouri, to its voting structure, a de-facto at-large system.)

Under the CVRA, municipalities such as Anaheim, Whittier, and Palmdale have come under scrutiny for their at-large voting practices. But the new bill would offer judges the ability to implement remedies to situations where communities are able to participate in the political process, a key difference from the current CVRA. Some commentators have already suggested that the bill could be aimed at one very prominent case: Los Angeles County.

Longtime Los Angeles political journalist Bill Boyarsky described the new proposed bill as an “end run around” the current Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. The five-member Board of Supervisors have been reluctant in the past to add more seats and give up power, including control of an annual $25 billion budget. But the board’s make-up—three of the five supervisors are white males—does not resemble county demographics:

Judicial expansion of the board to nine members would make possible the drawing of more supervisorial districts with substantial numbers of Hispanic voters, giving Latino candidates a good chance of winning. Now Gloria Molina is the only one in a county where 48 percent of the 10 million residents are Latino. A judge could also clear the way for a new district where an Asian American could win election to the board for the first time. Asian Americans amount to 14.6 percent of the county’s population.

The new bill has some vocal critics, included a redistricting consultant who has previously played an active role in supporting the expansion of Latino representation on the Board of Supervisors. Alan Clayton says SB 1365 would not be able to survive a constitutional challenge and that the new bill allocates too much power to the California secretary of state, a position for which Padilla is currently campaigning.

Governor Brown has until September 30 to decide if he will sign SB 1365 into law for 2015. If he approves it, expect some controversy and a huge possible shake up in Los Angeles County and in many municipalities throughout the state.

 

 

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[1] Davidson, Chandler, and George Korbel. 1981. “At-Large Elections and Minority-Group Representation: A Re-examination of Historical and Contemporary Evidence.” Journal of Politics 43(September):982–1005.

[2] Engstrom, Richard, and Michael McDonald. 1986. “The Effect of At-Large Versus District Elections on Racial Representation in U.S. Municipalities.” In Electoral Laws and Their Political Consequences, ed. Bernard Grofman and Arend Lijphart. New York: Agathon Press.

[3] Welch, Susan. 1990. “The Impact of At-Large Elections on the Representation of Blacks and Hispanics.” Journal of Politics 52(November):1050–76.