Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, says "there are a number of cities, some of them not even known to us, where there are serious issues of racially-polarized voting and exclusion of Latino candidates."
KPCC has launched a series called "Project Citizen." Our stories look at the responsibilities, traditions and privileges that citizenship entails. Voting is one of them. But some voters say fair representation remains elusive. As KPCC's Sharon McNary reports, California's Voting Rights Act is being used with greater frequency to change how voters elect their local officials.
As Miguel Garcia strolls Greenleaf Avenue — the quaint shopping street in Uptown Whittier — he points out the many Latino-owned businesses.
"You have a restaurant that is called La Pescadora," he says. "There's the shop that imports furniture from Guadalajara, the ice cream store, Steve's Barbeque and a couple of upscale restaurants." Garcia estimates about one-third of the city's businesses are Latino-owned.
Garcia has been a resident since 1987, and he loves the place — except for this one thing:
"We've been trying to elect a Latino to the City Council at least for ten years and we haven't been able to do so.
About two-thirds of Whittier's population and more than half the people of voting age there are Latino. Like more than 4o0 other California cities, Whittier uses at-large elections. In such cases, voters from throughout the city select all the council members.
Under the at-large system, just one Latino has won a council seat in Whittier's 115-year history. He was Victor Lopez, a popular local high school football coach.
Garcia and a group called the Whittier Latino Coalition are demanding the council switch to district elections and move them from the low-turnout month of April to November.
If the council refuses, the Coalition says it will sue under the California Voting Rights Act. The 2001 law is a powerful legal tool designed to force local governments to switch from at-large to district elections.
Civil rights activists have been critical of a June U.S. Supreme Court decision that declared some elements of the federal Voting Rights Act unconstitutional. Meanwhile, California's own Voting Rights Act is being used with greater frequency to change how voters elect their local officials.
Thomas Saenz is president of the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund. The civil rights group helped draft the California Voting Rights Act to circumvent the high costs and burden of proof needed to win cases under the federal Voting Rights Act.
"What the [California Voting Rights Act] did is streamline that process and made it easier to challenge those at-large systems where there was a demonstration of racially polarized voting," Saenz said. "I think there are a number of cities, some of them not even known to us, where there are serious issues of racially-polarized voting and exclusion of Latino candidates."
Some cities have changed to districts after being sued — Compton among them. Anaheim and Palmdale are in litigation after refusing to adopt district elections. Santa Clarita is also facing a new challenge of its at-large elections. So far, no city has managed to keep its at-large election system when challenged under the California Voting Rights Act.
The threat of a lawsuit — and having to pay legal costs into the millions of dollars if they lose — has been enough to get other cities and many school districts to voluntarily move to district elections.
Whittier College political science Professor Eric Lindgren has studied voting patterns in Whittier and says it is among dozens of California cities that are ripe for challenges of their at-large elections.
"There are nine cities I identified that have majority-minority populations with zero representation on city councils and Whittier is one of those, and then there are an additional 15 cities that have only one," he said.
Lindgren, who is advising the Whittier Latino Coalition, says that city's voting patterns are polarized because the Latino and non-Latino populations vote for different candidates.
"So it's not that Latinos are racist or that they can't have white representation, it's simply they are not able to elect the candidate of their choice because of the electoral format," he said.
Lindgren pointed out that Latinos, blacks, Asians and other ethnic minorities make up 43 percent of the total city council members in California cities with district elections, far more than in places that have at-large election.
But attorney Mitchell Abbott, who defended Palmdale during its May trial over at-large elections, says it can be hard to prove racially-polarized voting using census and voting records and mathematical formulas.
"One of the problems with this area of the law is that, in many cases, the statistics wind up with such a huge margin of error or uncertainty factor that they're almost useless," Abbott said.
District elections don't make sense to Whittier Mayor Bob Henderson, who has served on the City Council for 32 years. To him, majority rule is the American way.
"This country is based on the idea that the majority of votes that go to a candidate tend to represent the will of the people," said Henderson, "and I think it's not that hard in California, certainly, to get out and vote."
He opposes switching to district elections because he fears it will lead to fiefdoms forming, where council members look out only for their areas rather than the entire city.
The Latino Coalition has retained Rod Pacheco, a former Assemblyman and Riverside District Attorney. They set a July 17 deadline for Whittier to change its election format to districts or be sued.
Garcia, an attorney who's been politically involved since the East Los Angeles high school walkouts of the late '60s, hopes they don't have to fight City Hall in court. He implored the Whittier City Council: "Please, do the right thing, save us lots of money."
As a city taxpayer, Garcia would rather see Whittier use its money to roll out a new system of district elections.
This story is part of KPCC's "Project Citizen" series, looking at the rights, responsibilities, traditions and privileges that come with citizenship. What does citizenship mean to you? Take a sample citizenship test and see more stories in this series here.
Below: This list, prepared by National Demographics Corporation for use by Palmdale's defense attorneys in a trial over the city's at-large voting system, lists California cities and the election systems they use. It also shows the Latino population of each city as recorded in the 2010 Census. View this on Scribd