Represent!

Politics, government and public life for Southern California

Judge won't halt Whittier city election in voting rights dispute

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A judge on Tuesday denied the Whittier Latino Coalition's request to halt an April election in the San Gabriel Valley city. The coalition sued the city last year alleging its at-large elections violate the California Voting Rights Act.

In his ruling, Superior Court Judge Michael Johnson said the coalition has a good chance at trial of proving its position that the city's at-large elections dilute the voting power of the city's Latino majority. The coalition wants the city council elected by district. But the judge ruled the coalition had not shown great harm would result from proceeding with the election.

Four candidates are running for two council seats on the April 8 ballot, including Mayor Bob Henderson, who has served on the council for decades, and Councilman Fernando Dutra. Only one Latino has won election to the Whittier City Council in more than a century, and another was appointed to office. Whittier's population is 66 percent Latino, though they represent less than half the city's registered voters.

The city argued against canceling the election because more than 1,100 votes have already been cast in early and mail-in balloting, said Assistant City Attorney Kimberly Hall Barlow.

The hearing pitted evidence from the coalition and  city about the central issue in dispute — whether Latinos, who make up a majority of residents, can elect the representatives of their choice in Whittier under the city's at-large voting system.  

In at-large elections, all voters cast ballots for all council seats. Under the California Voting Rights Act, local governments such as cities and school districts may be barred from holding at-large elections if plaintiffs prove the system leads to racially-polarized voting.

Both sides presented their evidence for and against the existence of such polarized voting. In his ruling, Johnson said the coalition had shown a reasonable probability that they would prove their case.

That pleased coalition attorney Rod Pacheco, who said the hearing functioned as a sort of preview of how the issue would play out at trial.

Barlow, who represented Whittier, said the judge's findings were not a prediction the coalition would win its case. She said it meant only that they had presented sufficient information for the case to move forward to trial where the city could challenge the coalition's experts and witnesses.

The next hearing in the case is April 18, three days after the election winners are to be sworn into office, Barlow said. In an attempt to address the coalition's complaints and settle the lawsuit, the City Council has placed a measure on the June 3 ballot that, if passed, would change the city charter to allow voters to select four council members from districts and a citywide mayor. 

The coalition does not support the measure, saying all five council members should be elected by district. The members would choose the mayor from among themselves, as is currently the case.

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