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Federal Voting Rights Act lawsuit settlement leaves Kern County with two Latino-majority districts

A federal judge approved new boundaries for the Kern County Board of Supervisors this week, creating two Latino-majority districts in a move that could provide such voters significant political power.

Fresno-based Judge Dale Drozd of the U.S. District Court's Eastern District of California approved the new boundaries Friday as part of a settlement of a 2016 lawsuit by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. It marked the first federal voting rights challenge in California in more than 15 years.

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MALDEF argued that a redistricting plan adopted in 2011 by the Board of Supervisors violated a provision of the federal Voting Rights Act that prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color or language. Drozd agreed.

"The court concludes that Latino voters in Kern County have been deprived of an equal opportunity to elect representatives of their choice," he wrote in his February ruling.

Out of five districts, the 2011 plan contained one in which Latinos constituted a majority of voters. It divided a Latino community in northern Kern County into two districts where they represented a minority of voters.

Plaintiffs, their attorneys and Kern County leaders agreed Friday on a new district map that creates a second predominantly Latino district.

Denise Hulett, MALDEF national senior counsel and lead attorney in the case, said the organization warned county leaders in 2011 that they were in danger of violating the Voting Rights Act. Despite requests to look at alternative boundaries, the board rushed the plan through, she said.

"One of the oldest ways of racial gerrymandering, of denying the vote to people of color, is to split them," she said. "That's what happened here."

Hulett pointed to the outcome of Sam Ramirez's failed 2012 run for election against current Supervisor Mick Gleason of Ridgecrest. Despite winning the overwhelming majority of the Latino vote, he didn't stand a chance, Hulett said, in a district that spans northern Kern County from the farming community of Delano to the mountain community of Ridgecrest.

"No matter how much Latinos supported a candidate they always got outvoted," she said. "It's racially polarized voting that causes injury here."

Supervisor David Couch lost a significant part of his 4th District, including Frazier Park, Taft and Pine Mountain Club, now part of the 2nd District. He has indicated he may run for a shortened two-year term.

The new 4th District district includes the Latino-majority communities of Lamont, McFarland, Arvin, Wasco, Delano, Buttonwillow, Lost Hills and Shafter. The 5th District supervisor, Leticia Perez, is the only Latina on the board. She represents east and southeast Bakersfield, Arvin, Lamont, Weedpatch, Oleander and Westchester.

One potential opponent for Couch is Emilio Huerta, son of civil rights icon Dolores Huerta. Asked if he was running, Huerta told the Bakersfield Californian, "Maybe. No. I don't know. I've been asked that a lot in the last 15 days."

There will be a special election for Districts 2, 3 and 4 in November.

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