Politics

Asian Americans sue Fullerton over at-large city elections

Rhys Buchele, left, and Serena Cline wait in line to vote at the George G. Golleher Alumni House during the 2012 presidential elections at Cal State University, Fullerton in Fullerton, Calif., Tuesday, November 6, 2012. Local residents were given a chance to vote at the polling location at the university campus.
Rhys Buchele, left, and Serena Cline wait in line to vote at the George G. Golleher Alumni House during the 2012 presidential elections at Cal State University, Fullerton in Fullerton, Calif., Tuesday, November 6, 2012. Local residents were given a chance to vote at the polling location at the university campus.
Anibal Ortiz/KPCC

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A lawsuit filed Wednesday against the city of Fullerton, California argues its at-large election system violates the voting rights of Asian-Americans by denying them political representation on the city council.

The Southern California branch of the ACLU, along with Asian-Americans Advancing Justice; and private attorneys filed the lawsuit against the city of Fullerton – taking aim at city council's at-large elections.

With at-large voting, registered voters, no matter what part of the city they live in, get to vote for all candidates.

Critics of at-large or citywide elections, claim this system allows majority groups to dilute the voting power of federally protected minority classes such as Asian-Americans, Latinos or blacks.

Hypothetically speaking, and in a racially-segregated area, if a white voting group makes up 60 percent of the electorate, this group in an at-large election would always be able to elect candidates they want by voting together, despite a racial minority group that makes up, say, 40 percent of the electorate and votes together. In this way, an at-large election system denies minorities an opportunity to elect a candidate of their choice.

This latest lawsuit is part of a larger-trend taking place across California. Voters in Anaheim, for example, chose in November to move to a district-based election system, but only after Anaheim city officials fought the lawsuit, which cost more than a million dollars in legal fees.

Fullerton becomes yet another California city over the last decade that has been sued under the state’s Voting Rights Act of 2001, making it illegal for municipalities to hold at-large elections if the process dilutes the voting power of minority groups or denies them political representation.

Asian-Americans make up 23 percent of the population in Fullerton, but none of the city council members are Asian American, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit underlines the historical struggle Asian-Americans have had participating politically in Fullerton:  Upon Fullerton's founding in 1887 up until the present – and despite the fact that many Asian-American candidates have run for council seat – only two Asian-Americans have ever won election to its city council.

“City councils must reflect the communities they represent, but Fullerton’s doesn’t,” said Brendan Hamme, staff attorney with the ACLU of Southern California. He said the last Asian American to be elected to the Fullerton city council was in the 1990s.

The city holds at-large elections for its five council members' positions that serve four-year staggered terms. The elected council chooses a chair who also serves as mayor.   

Fullerton resident Jonathan Paik, 27, is a community organizer for the non-profit Korean Resource Center in Buena Park. He’s at the center of this lawsuit that in effect asked the court to force the city to implement district-based elections.

District-based elections would require candidates to live in and be elected by the people who live in the neighborhood the candidate plans to represent. 

“What I’m hoping from district election, is that with a council member that (sic) represents a district that I live in, that they’ll represent my community and my interest,” said Paik.

The lawsuit also petitioned for the city to pay the attorney and court fees, which have become costly to cities targeted in the past.

Fullerton Mayor Greg Seborun declined to comment on the lawsuit, nor did the city manager return a request for a response to this story.