Fullerton's at-large voting system shuts out Asian Americans, suit says

A civil rights lawsuit seeks to change Fullerton's at-large voting system for City Council seats

Two civil rights groups sued the city of Fullerton on Wednesday, saying the college town's at-large voting system shuts out Asian Americans.

In their lawsuit, the ACLU Foundation of Southern California and Asian Americans Advancing Justice — L.A. allege Fullerton's system for electing council members violates the California Voting Rights Act and blocks large segments of the community — especially Asian Americans — from having a voice in city government.

"Almost one in four eligible voters in Fullerton is Asian American, yet despite their sizable numbers, no Asian American currently serves on the City Council," said Deanna Kitamura, senior staff attorney at Asian Americans Advancing Justice — L.A.

She said Asian American candidates who enjoy support from the city's Asian community have consistently been defeated under the current at-large voting system. Fullerton, a city of nearly 140,000 people, is nearly 23% Asian.

City officials did not immediately respond to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit is similar to challenges in other Southern California cities that have become increasingly diverse yet continue to have at-large voting for City Council races.

The suit asks Fullerton to take steps toward creating council districts. Sandra Hernandez, ACLU SoCal's spokeswoman, said her group looked at what happened in Anaheim before filing suit.

In Anaheim, the largest city in the state to still have at-large voting, leaders agreed to put the matter on the ballot, but only after a lawsuit was filed alleging that the city was discriminating against those who live in its heavily Latino neighborhoods. The city has a Latino majority, but its elected leaders have mostly been white.

After years of noisy protests and angry marches, Anaheim residents voted in favor of creating council districts.

In Glendale, voters this spring will be asked to decide whether the city should switch from an at-large voting system to individual districts under a plan approved by the City Council.

The Fullerton lawsuit was filed on behalf of Jonathan Paik, a 27-year-old resident and a coordinator at the Korean Resource Center.

"The struggle has been we've never been asked what we care about," Paik said. "We're working to hold elected officials accountable, to finally have them respond to our needs."

The California Voting Rights Act prohibits cities from imposing at-large elections that deny minority communities the opportunity to elect candidates of their choice or influence the outcome of elections.

anh.do@latimes.com

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