Politics, government and public life for Southern California

Judge refuses to halt Whittier Latino voting rights lawsuit

Plaintiffs in Whittier voting lawsuit

Sharon McNary/KPCC

Whittier College student Jafet Diego, homemaker Lisa Lopez and attorney Miguel Garcia (L-R) are the three Whittier residents who sued the city under the California Voting Rights Act.

A judge has denied  the city of Whittier's request to halt a lawsuit by a coalition of Latino residents who allege the city's at-large elections violate the California Voting Rights Act. The Whittier Latino Coalition is asking for all five council members to be elected by district.

Whittier is one of several California cities where the state Voting Rights Act is being used to challenge longstanding practices of having voters from all parts of a city choose all council members.

The coalition believes lawsuit calls on voting districts would give Latino candidates a better chance to win elections.  Only one Latino has won election to the Whittier City Council since 1989, and one was appointed. The city's population is 67 percent Latino.

Under the law, local governments can be forced to adopt voting-by-district if plaintiffs can show at trial that the at-large system has resulted in racially-polarized voting patterns that keep residents from electing candidates of their choice. The cities of Anaheim and Compton have changed their voting systems as part of lawsuit settlements, and plaintiffs won at trial in a Palmdale case.

In response to the lawsuit, the Whittier City Council last year decided to place a charter amendment on the June 3 ballot asking voters to switch the at-large system to one in which residents of four districts would choose their own council member, and all voters would select a mayor.

Superior Court Judge Michael Johnson will hold a hearing March 18 on the Whittier Latino Coalition's challenge of that June charter amendment election. The coalition prefers five council districts, and wants to participate in the drawing of the district boundaries, said coalition spokesman Louis Reyes. The coalition also wants the city elections to be held on the same days as major state elections.

A spokesperson for the city of Whittier could not be reached immediately for comment on the judge's Friday decision.

The Whittier Latino Coalition is also challenging an April 8 at-large election to select two City Council members to four-year terms.

Canceling the April election would cost the city money. The election is required to be held by the city's charter and will cost about $162,000, said City Clerk Kathryn Marshall. The city's 13,000 permanent vote-by-mail voters will receive ballots by March 10 and will already be casting votes by the time of the March 18 court hearing, she said.

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