First came Modesto. Then Compton, Anaheim, Escondido, Whittier, Palmdale and others were pushed into the growing ranks of California cities under pressure to change how they elect their city councils.
Activists seeking minority representation on those councils are clamoring to have members elected by geographic district. Ethnically diverse cities that hold at-large elections and have few minority officeholders have proved vulnerable to lawsuits under the 11-year-old California Voting Rights Act.
All a plaintiff has to do, experts say, is demonstrate that racially polarized voting exists — and often that can be done with election results that reveal contrasting outcomes between predominantly minority precincts and white ones.
Across California, community college and school districts are making the switch.
"We're seeing easily the biggest shift" since the Progressives ushered in at-large elections nearly a century ago, said Douglas Johnson, president of the research firm National Demographics Corp. and a fellow at the Rose Institute of State and Local Government at Claremont McKenna College.
California's counties and most of its largest cities, including Los Angeles, San Diego and Long Beach, elect council members by geographic district. But in scores of other towns, voters get a say about everyone on the ballot— which, advocates of such at-large systems say, provides better accountability and less balkanization.
Johnson said the voting rights law is overly broad and vague: "It offers very little guidance, and a lot of districts are changing just to avoid lawsuits."
But cities have been more reluctant.
Compton, with a majority Latino population and a mostly African American power structure, switched to geographic representation only after a lawsuit settlement. So did Escondido. Palmdale, which lost a lawsuit in July, has vowed to appeal. Anaheim, facing a trial, tried in vain to appease plaintiffs by requiring that candidates live in designated districts, although they still would be elected at large.
Whittier, sued last month by Latino activists who said they had tried for years to get representation on that city's council, will ask voters to settle the matter in a special election in June. The activists have denounced the move as a delaying tactic that would keep the status quo until after the April council election.
No one has done a comprehensive study of the voting rights law's effect, experts say, and it is unclear how much difference a switch in formats makes for minority candidates.
But no local government has won a state voting rights lawsuit, and jurisdictions that can't demonstrate fair treatment of minorities in at-large election systems must pay plaintiffs' legal fees, said consultant Paul Mitchell, whose Sacramento-based Redistricting Partners has helped several local governments make the change.
Palmdale Mayor Jim Ledford said the state's voting rights law has prompted a "money grab" by lawyers. He said he can't explain why Palmdale, whose population is almost 55% Latino and nearly 15% black, has elected only one Latino and no African Americans to its council.
"We go for the best and brightest," Ledford told The Times after a judge found his city in violation of the law. "I can't speak for the message of the candidates or their ability to raise the funds to run."
Years of racism, manifested in part by polarized voting, have undercut minorities' opportunities to be elected or to choose a candidate they feel can best represent them, said Rod Pacheco, a former Republican state assemblyman and Riverside County district attorney.
He and attorney Felix Woo are representing the Whittier activists in their suit, also aimed at changing municipal balloting dates to coincide with state and national general elections to encourage better turnout.
The voting rights act "was meant to give everybody an equal opportunity to participate" in elections, Pacheco said. "Whittier is fighting a battle it has already lost."
Whittier's attorney in the suit, Marguerite Mary Leoni, declined to comment, citing the ongoing litigation.
Census data show that nearly 66% of Whittier's residents are Latino. But only one Latino has been elected to the City Council since the town incorporated in 1898.
Whittier College political scientist Eric A. Lindgren did a study of the 2010 Whittier election that he said showed racially polarized voting "against a clear minority choice candidate," Alex Morales.
Morales did relatively well in predominantly Latino precincts but won little support in those with largely white voters.
Whittier Mayor Bob Henderson said the city has tried to be inclusive. Voters there helped elect several Latinos to seats in the state Legislature and Congress, he noted.
"I don't see where [the voting system] is exclusionary at all," Henderson said.
It is important for voters to decide whether to make changes, he said, "as opposed to having it decided by outside forces."
Angie Medina, a founder of the Whittier Latino Coalition and a supporter of the lawsuit, said the organization has worked for years to improve Latinos' participation in all aspects of the city but that those efforts didn't help Latinos win elections.
"This is not personal against any of the council members," Medina said of the lawsuit. "It's about democracy, about fairness for everybody. We have a lot of educated Latino professionals in Whittier, and there is no reason we shouldn't be able to elect somebody."
One of those professionals is attorney Alex Moisa. He ran for City Council in 2004 and 2006. He also applied to be appointed when a seat became vacant midterm but was not considered.
"Politics here are to a large degree stagnant," Moisa said. Leaders "don't have a good avenue for bringing new ideas" or fresh investment sources to the city.
Electing someone from the city's vibrant Latino community would change that, Moisa said.