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Mission Viejo contemplates switch to by-district voting

File photo: A voting location in North Hollywood during the Los Angeles city election on May 16, 2017. Mission Viejo is studying whether to switch from at-large to by-district voting for citywide elections after being accused of violating the California Voting Rights Act. Mary Plummer/KPCC

Mission Viejo is the latest Orange County city to be threatened with a lawsuit if it doesn’t reform its local voting system to give minorities more power. 

The city received a letter in late October from Malibu-based lawyer Kevin Shenkman alleging that the city is violating the California Voting Rights Act because its at-large system of electing local officials dilutes the political power of minority voters and leads to “racially polarized voting."

The law makes at-large elections illegal if they prevent minority voters from electing representatives of their choice. It’s become a powerful tool for Latino groups hoping to boost political representation at the local level. 

Mission Viejo is holding a series of public hearings to decide whether to switch to by-district elections, where residents of a geographic district vote for a candidate from that district to represent them. The state Voting Rights Act requires that those districts be drawn to maximize the voting power of underrepresented minorities. 

According to Census data, 17 percent of Mission Viejo residents are Latino. City Attorney Bill Curley said several Latinos have been elected to the city council in the past, although none of the five current council members is Latino.

Curley said he doesn’t see evidence that the voting power of Latino residents has been curbed. And he said it would be difficult to carve out a voting district in Mission Viejo with a large Latino population because Latinos are spread throughout the city. 

“Right now we’re looking for a solution that’s looking for a problem,” he said. 

Curley said cities across the state have been strong-armed into switching to by-district elections because of the potentially high legal cost of defending against lawsuits.

“Cities have just grinned and borne it and gone along with it in order to protect their treasury,” he said. 

But some Latino groups say these forced changes at the local level are the only way to correct political underrepresentation of what is now the state’s largest ethnic group. Latinos make up nearly 40 percent of California’s population but only hold around 15 percent of city council seats across the state, according to a 2015 analysis by the Leadership California Institute and the California Latino Caucus. 

Shenkman has sued dozens of cities and school districts across the state, sometimes at the behest of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, a group that work to increase Latino political power.

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund has also put legal pressure on California jurisdictions to change their voting systems.

In Orange County, Anaheim, Garden Grove, Buena Park, Costa Mesa, Fullerton, Placentia and San Juan Capistrano have all switched to by-district elections in recent years, most after being threatened with legal action. 

Statewide, more than 200 cities and school districts have made the switch

Stanton is in the process of implementing by-district elections while Lake Forest is studying the matter after being threatened with legal action by Shenkman. 

Huntington Beach is also facing a potential lawsuit for its at-large voting system but has reportedly vowed to fight rather than switch to by-district elections. 

In Los Angeles, Santa Monica is also fighting off attempts to force the city to move to by-district elections. It has a court date on the matter scheduled for July 2018, according to Shenkman.

In October, a former mayor of Poway, in San Diego County, filed suit in federal court seeking to have the state Voting Rights Act declared unconstitutional. The lawsuit claims that the state law violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. 

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Shenkman initiates legal action at the behest of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. We regret the error.