Minority groups seeking more influence in local government would have a potentially powerful new tool at their disposal under a proposed expansion of the California Voting Rights Act.
The way Los Angeles County — among others jurisdictions — has drawn districts for elected officials could face a legal challenge in California if a bill, introduced by state Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima), becomes law.
It took a federal lawsuit more than 20 years ago to create the first Latino-majority district on the L.A. County
Minority groups have successfully sued cities and school districts in recent years under the state's Voting Rights Act, which allows challenges to voting systems where representatives are elected at-large. To prevail, groups must show their voting power has been diluted.
Padilla's proposal would expand that legal concept and allow challenges to systems where officials are elected by district. If the legislation is enacted and violations of the law are found, a judge could order the local government to redraw district lines or increase the number of seats on the elected body to ensure minority voters are treated equally.
Currently, challenges to district-based voting systems are permitted only in federal court.
"It would be a more streamlined challenge [in state court]," said Thomas Saenz, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, one of the groups backing the bill. "It would be more efficient, less costly."
Under the legislation, Saenz said, at least nine counties, including Los Angeles and most others in Southern California, could face challenges for failing to create one or two Latino-majority seats.
Deanna Kitamura, a senior staff attorney with Asian Americans Advancing Justice, another group supporting the proposal, said it would also allow Asian Americans — often not a large enough group to form a majority in one district — to form coalitions with other minority groups to seek representation.
"We do see a benefit to potentially large pockets of Asian Americans in the state," she said.
L.A. county's governing board has not taken an official position on the bill, which passed the state Senate on a party-line vote in April, and is awaiting a vote by the Assembly this month.
Padilla said in an interview that changing the L.A. County board was not his motivation for introducing the bill. He said he was concerned about a spate of recent legislation across the country requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls, and a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down portions of the federal Voting Rights Act.
"Voting rights, in my mind, are under attack," he said.
He added that he also wants an "added layer of protection" to ensure that government bodies switching from at-large to by-district elections do so in a way that protects minority voters.