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Activists sue Santa Barbara, alleging voting rights violations

Activists say Santa Barbara's at-large elections deprive minorities of their voting rights

Santa Barbara on Tuesday joined the ranks of California cities to be sued over their method of electing public officials.

Five Spanish-surnamed registered voters in the city of more than 88,000 filed suit in Santa Barbara County Superior Court, claiming the city is in violation of the California Voting Rights Act.

Santa Barabara Mayor Helene Schneider called the lawsuit premature and said the city had already authorized a study of its elections.

The plaintiffs allege the city's at-large elections system "has resulted in vote dilution for Latino residents and has denied them effective political participation in elections to the Santa Barbara City Council."

They want the court to order the city to begin electing its council members by geographic district. They believe by-district elections would give Latino voters, who are largely concentrated in certain areas of the city, a better chance of electing at least one representative of their choice to the council.

According to the lawsuit, 38% of city residents are Latino but only one member of that ethnic group has been elected to the council in the last 10 years. No Latino has been elected mayor since the city switched to at-large elections in 1968.

The plaintiffs, who are represented by former Santa Barbara City Atty. A. Barry Cappello, said in their suit they have found evidence of raciallly polarized voting. Analysis of precinct results can be used to find patterns of such voting, in which the outcomes in minority precincts differ from those in the rest of a jurisdiction.

Such differences in voting patterns are key in bringing a successful lawsuit under the state's Voting Rights Act, written in 2001 and on the books since 2002.

In the last few years, activists seeking to help minorities gain better access to the political process have been bringing complaints against cities, school districts and other local jurisdictions. Local governments with significant minority populations but few if any minority elected officials and who choose their representatives at large are especially vulnerable under the Voting Rights Act.

Many jurisdictions have settled such complaints by voluntarily changing to by-dsitrict elections, but others have fought, saying they believe it should be up to their voters to determine the manner of their elections.

Palmdale last year lost a voting rights lawsuit and has appealed parts of the trial court's ruling. Whittier, where voters recently approved a change to by-district elections, is scheduled to ask the court to dismiss a lawsuit against it on Sept. 5.

Earlier this month, Bellflower was sued by activists with the help of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and two law firms.

Santa Barbara's seven-member governing body is made up of six council members and a separately elected mayor. They are elected citywide to staggered four-year terms.

"I am very disappointed to see this premature lawsuit filed, since the council has been studying the issue of whether the city of Santa Barbara in fact has any racially polarized voting," Schneider said in a statement released in response to the suit. 

"Just last week," she added, the city authorized funding for a study of city voting patterns and expects "to have those results in September."

Follow @jeanmerl for the latest in Southern California politics news.

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